On Atticus

A caveat: I haven’t read it yet. None of us mortals have, given that the book technically went on sale today as I write this. However, that didn’t stop any of the (un)lucky few who received advance galleys from commenting widely on Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s perhaps soon to be infamous “new” book. Before I go on, I will do you the favor that none of those early readers did me and tell you that this post discusses the BIG NEWS that might change your life forever if you love To Kill a Mockingbird as I do. If you don’t want to know, stop reading now. My eldest son is named Atticus, and yes, he was named for Atticus Finch, the gold standard of fathers and human beings, and one of the most popular literary characters ever created. Atticus’s intellectualism, genuine respectfulness, and ability to take everyone as they are—whether it’s his scrappy daughter forever fighting in the schoolyard or his poor clients who pay in hickory nuts or his black clients greatly in need of defending against a system constructed entirely to work against them—are what set him apart and caused a generation of girls like me to imprint upon him like baby ducks.

But then the press trumpeted the great reveal promising to bring my world crashing down around me. Commentators are saying I may as well have named my son for Strom Thurmond or Archie Bunker given that Atticus turns out to be a run-of-the-mill racist whose failings were whitewashed by the willful memory of a daughter who wanted him to be something better than he was. In reality, the new book proves, he’s pro-segregation and thinks blacks just aren’t as good as white folks, and nothing can change his mind.

Because I haven’t read it yet, I’m not going to provide here any proper literary criticism regarding the new novel and the more “nuanced” racist Atticus it is said to portray. Yet nothing will ever change for me in relation to the Atticus to whom I was first introduced. Only the author or the reader has the power to change a character. The former does it in the act of creation, and the latter does it through the act of imagination cast through the lens of experience. For example, it was only in re-reading TKAM a few years ago as I was writing an academic lesson plan that I paid more attention to how Atticus resisted the racial mores of the time but was more willing to sacrifice Scout to pernicious ideas of femininity. Not directly—he had his sister do the dirty work—but he was unwilling in this case to challenge what was believed to be the right order of things as it related to being a lady. And it was only later that I properly discovered Dolphus Raymond, a white man who plays the part of the town drunk so that he’s allowed to live in peace with his black common-law wife and mixed-race children. The variety of masks the townspeople wear are complex and a true marvel.

Nothing will fundamentally change Atticus Finch for me, because I am an editor. I know that the Atticus I first met was the Atticus that Lee meant for me to see. Go Set a Watchman was not a prequel or a sequel written by Lee to comment upon TKAM; it was an earlier, inferior draft of the same book. There is no big reveal about who Atticus actually is, because he is a character, not a person. This wasn’t historical “dirt” dug up on an actual man that should alter how we see and feel about his actions in TKAM. Atticus Finch was first created as he was in Watchman and, as the uproar proves, wasn’t meant to be this man. It might be more realistic to have him act the good attorney and father but attend KKK meetings on the side. The first Finch may even more closely represent the actual failings of Lee’s father, on whom it is said she based the character. But what Lee’s editor knew all too well, and Lee knew too in her marvelous revision of this earlier book that became TKAM, is that realistic is not always what the reader wants nor what the world needs. Sometimes the reader wants a hero, someone who displays the best of humanity, who we all wish we were and fail to be in a million ordinary ways. The reader wants it all: humility, intelligence, love, courage, wisdom, tolerance, respect, and if it looks like Gregory Peck, that doesn’t hurt. I don’t know that most readers realize how often some of their favorite characters are “born” misshapen, selfish, one-dimensional, lacking in courage or conviction, unable to love. That’s one of the reasons early drafts aren’t published. More than changing my worldview, the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman reaffirms my worship of the brilliant book TKAM turned out to be and my love for the profession I chose, the editorial process itself the crucible in which run-of-the-mill racists can become heroes and inspire us all.