No plots, hopes or dreams were ruined during the writing of this post.
I suppose if J. D. Salinger really did have another Holden Caulfield novel hidden away – perhaps it’s still locked up in a sanitarium somewhere- it would tell a tale much along the same lines as ‘Mad Men’. The cynicism of a Don Draper and his advertising friends is already there in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and there is no suggestion of a happy ending in the novel. We leave Holden in ‘this crazy place’: this isn’t a guy who’s about to grow up into a rounded human being. Perhaps Madison Avenue would be the perfect destination for one who was so quick to recognise ‘phonies.’
This return to our favourite characters years later is the premise of Harper Lee’s ‘unpublished’ novel, in which we are parachuted back into the world of Maycomb, twenty years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, alongside a returning Jean Louise Finch – no longer Scout – now living in New York. As one who loves the first book this is an unexpected journey, one which seems strange at first, uncomfortable. What leads us though this wonderful trip, however, is the fact that what makes ‘Mockingbird’ such a success – the naivety and innocence of the narrative voice – has been replaced by the more cynical, big city, savvy girl.
However, as Jean Louise returns to an ageing Atticus, it is my own life as a reader on which I being to reflect. Returning to ‘tired, old’ Maycomb some thirty years after I first read the book was a strange experience. The wonderful, inspiring, rose-tinted glow of the first one has been lifted to reveal a darker but nevertheless more real world. Over time we change, experience and age altering our outlooks, and that is reflected in the way we read.When we re-read old favourites we don’t merely repeat the process because we have changed; our background knowledge has increased, our life experiences enhanced. So, like Jean Louise, we might return there but it can never be the same.
If we are to believe that whenever we read something new our brains alter to adapt to the new information, then we could argue that we are what we read, almost literally. We have our own literary DNA. Perhaps Harper Lee helped us develop a greater sense of right and wrong, of tolerance and racism and equality when we were teenagers. But we are the sum of all of those parts. We also shared Scout’s rebellion and strength of will but sometimes we have to rip up those ideals – or at least temper them with a touch of realism – if we are to grow. That’s the message of this book.
There is no doubt some will hate ‘Go Set A Watchman’. Some will hate it without reading it and I can understand that. We like to keep our idols as idols; we often want our past to remain in the past. However, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is one of those books which almost every school child will ‘have’ to read at some point. I don’t know any who haven’t been affected by it in some way. It is too easy to dismiss this new book as an addendum; we owe it to Jean Louise to follow her story to the end. We owe it to ourselves to return to Maycomb for one last look.