"I'm disappointed," a skeptical fan told me as we sat in the 92nd Street Y's Unterberg Poetry Center waiting for Mary Badham—the actress who played Scout Finch in the 1962 film To Kill A Mockingbird—to bring Scout to life again during a reading of Harper Lee's newest book, Go Set A Watchman. "I'm disappointed that so much has been revealed about the book, and Atticus, of course," he continued. In an early review, the New York Times revealed that the Atticus of Watchman is a racist and segregationist who tells his daughter: "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?"
It was an illustrative moment. The auditorium was filled to capacity to witness literary history: The release of a novel, whose existence was not publicly known until February of this year, by Harper Lee, who famously said she'd never write another book. For ardent fans of any text, there are questions of what happens beyond the pages. And because Watchman was written before Mockingbird, it presents Lee's original vision for the characters and therefore may not be a true sequel—though it has been categorized as such, since it takes place after the events of the first book. But there’s the lure of knowing a new vision, altogether different than what came before. After all, as Mary McDonagh Murphy, director of the documentary Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird, which was updated for the release of Watchman, said: "What's more perfect than a grown-up Scout reading a grown-up Scout?"
Mary Badham had no acting experience when she played Scout in the 1962 film, which helped her give an unaffected and natural performance. The Scout—or rather Jean Louise, as she is called in Watchman—who read the first chapters of both books this week gave a similarly natural reading in her easy and sweet Alabamian accent. Though she offered an apology for what she felt wasn't a polished reading ("I haven't read anything that long out loud since thirty years ago when my kids were little!" she said, to supportive laughs from the crowd), her reading captivated the audience and drew laughter during the easy moments of humor between the twenty-six year old Jean Louise and her sometime beau Henry Clinton.
But Atticus weighed on my mind. I read the first chapter of Watchman last week, and I was heartbroken to read that Atticus was aging and becoming feeble. With age, there can come an evolution of beliefs or ideas, but in the case of such a literary hero, growth is especially startling. I silently hoped for clarification as Badham and Mary McDonagh Murphy sat down for the Q&A, which while featuring fond remembrances of working on the film set, became slightly pointed during Badham's eventual discussion of Watchman's Atticus.
For her part, Badham believes in Watchman, and in the new, older Scout."I think everybody is really going to enjoy this book,” she said. “I think everybody should read this book. I think it's so timely for right now."
"Mockingbird came at the perfect time for our country,” she continued. “It allowed us the ability to discuss subjects rationally and intelligently without getting way up here," she paused to wave her hand above her head, "and now that things are way up here with our country, I think this will help a lot."
While Badham did not explicitly name events, in the past month we have witnessed the cold-blooded murder of nine black parishioners at the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina; the fiery debate over the Confederate battle flag, taken down from the Charleston statehouse and in other places across the country last week; and the settlement between Eric Garner's family and the city of New York after his death by police chokehold. Similarly, Mockingbird was published in 1960, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, six years after Brown v. Board of Education—an event that affects Atticus's character. The New York Times review notes that he blasts the Supreme Court and says he would like "to be left alone to keep house without advice from the N.A.A.C.P."
"Much is being made of several sentences that he utters in Go Set A Watchman," Murphy said. "What's your feeling about the portrayal of Atticus?”
"What you have to do is you have to put your mindset in that time period," Badham replied slowly. "You have to understand what we lived through, I being from Alabama can testify this about the way you presented at home and the way you may have to present in public,” she continued. “If I had ever said the n-word in my household, lye soap would have quickly gone down my throat. It was not something that one said. You were taught to be respectful and understanding and when you read the book, you'll get it."
"The four sentences aren't all this is to..." Murphy prompted.
Badham shook her head. "There is so much more to this and how many of us when we were twenty-something thought we just knew it all?" She didn't explain the remark much further.
From there, the questions from the audience largely focused on Badham's experience on the film set— "Gregory Peck was truly Atticus,” she said, “What we got at home was what you see up on the screen"—to meeting Harper Lee years afterward. She visited the nursing home where Lee was living, once, and was gently rebuked. "Young lady,” Lee said, “don't you ever come by here and don't say hey to me!"
While Badham admitted that she put off reading Mockingbird until her daughter was born, she emphasized the importance of reading both of Harper Lee's books in light of the "major things" that have come up in the past few weeks. "It all comes down to education. I tell the schools all the time, and I make the kids say it and then scream it: The root of all evil is ignorance."
"Let's say that all together," she motioned to the audience. We said it in unison: "Ignorance is the root of all evil."
"And education is the key to freedom," Badham finished, to loud applause.