I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was fifteen years old. I am ashamed to admit that my first reading was not the miraculous ‘coming of age’ or ‘coming to’ experience of many others’ who read this classic at such a young age. Living in the middle of bum-fuck Scotland, I was not aware of the American slavery experience, the Civil Rights movement, and the ingrained racism in American society. Sure, I knew what racism was, who Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were; but everything else? My school simply did not teach us. We learned about Robert the Bruce and William Wallace instead.
Aged twenty one I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and my world changed. After studying American History in my second year of university, I finally understood what Harper Lee was getting at and why Atticus Finch was one of the most revered fictional characters ever. Lee became my idol because she had written the perfect “first book”, not just one which you could retire on, but one which had instantly become a classic the moment it had touched the shelves because she had created immortal characters who were the voice of equality and who could be loved and revered by all generations.
In 2015, when the news broke that Lee was going to publish another book, and not just any book: the sequel to Mockingbird, I will not lie – I jumped for joy. I wanted to know what Scout, Jem and Atticus were like when they were older and America was caught up in the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was days later, when I heard that Go Set a Watchman had actually been written first, that I thought about what, potentially, this book could do to her legacy.
I bought my copy of Watchman from a Waterstones outlet in Brussels almost a month after it had been published. I had read all of the newspaper reviews, so I kind of knew what to expect, but I still had that feeling of excitement and anticipation upon opening it. This feeling lasted up until page sixteen.
Go Set a Watchman was different to Mockingbird. Atticus Finch – the voice of reason – was now Atticus Finch: member of the KKK. However, that is not what hurt the most. The quality of the writing hurt. Big time. Lee was so crisp, clean and clear in her writing style for Mockingbird. Her words dripped of the pages like smooth treacle that I devoured until I got sick. In Watchman the words were jarring and awkward. The characters were stiff. The story-line was jumpy and there were moments where I switched off and read like a zombie.
After finishing Go Set a Watchman, six weeks after I started it, I wished I hadn’t bothered. I felt that Lee had been cheated. She was a brilliant writer and her anonymity was part of her charm. I liked that I did not know who she really was because then I could imagine her exactly as my own. It is my belief that the publishing of Watchman exactly as it was found without any touch-ups, did not really have her consent, or that she was one hundred percent cognisant of what was actually going on.
On 19th February when I heard that she had passed away: I cried. She was, and is, still my idol. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic because its themes are recognisable. In a hundred years’ time, it will still be taught in schools and people will still be encouraged to read it. I sincerely hope that this will not be because American society is still the same, but because it will teach children what society used to be like. Although I am glad that Mockingbird can never disappear into the fringes of history, I am still sore, because Lee’s name has tarnished by Watchman and her silence was broken. I am so sorry that she is gone; but I wish she had not been alive when her name was sullied.