Will the Real Atticus Finch Please Stand Up?
Like thousands of readers, I riveted to the arrival of Go Set a Watchmanfrom Harper Lee. It was her first novel that, in its rejection, spawned the culture-rattling, To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, Mockingbird’s narrator is the first-person “Scout,” Atticus’ six-year-old daughter. The story is astutely framed as the memory of a twenty something returning in the 1950’s. In Watchman, Scout (Jean Louise Finch) does return as a twenty-something. She finds her father crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and possibly a touch of dementia. True or not, Atticus is different. Atticus Finch is now a bigot.
The first reviews are dominated by the difference in the two Atticuses. And so are the comments to the NYT. These comments range from the, “Yeah, no surprise here,” brushoff, to thoughtful reminiscences of people who react with degrees of angst to the change in him. Some see the reality of hypocrisy in most of us reflected in the reality of old-man-Atticus:
“The "contrasts" in Atticus are surely the reality of most peoples' lives. What one "stands for" and believes in, good or bad, are not always practiced…. How many people harbor racist or other unacceptable views but never act on or reveal them? Life is full of such imbalance.” Ken Russell
In Mockingbird, Atticus was the epitome of manhood. The movie image of him, alone and unarmed, guarding the jail to prevent the lynching is indelible. He set a bar for civility that would cause men in any society to sit up and learn. And he was a perfect father. The only thing that could have made him more heroic would have been that he was willing to risk his life for a principle even though he was racist. Not. Not a gut racist, anyway.
My Atticus Finch is flawless. It is an aspect of Mockingbird that has led some critics to assert it is a masterpiece of children’s literature and a fairy tale.
I want Mockingbird’s Atticus. Yet I’m drawn to commentators who relate the changes in him to the reality of the South of those times and these. Some hint of complicated childhoods in the 1940’s and ‘50’s and what Mockingbird—Atticus—meant to them. My mother, both good-hearted and flawed, took me to a movie in Atlanta, 1949. Its subject was a woman, “passing for white.” I think—perhaps through a rose speckled memory—it was her un-heroic way of introducing me to the flaw in our legacy.
The reviews-of-Watchman brouhaha revealed my attachment to an Atticus that was more than he could really be. Unexpectedly, it illuminated my inexplicable refusal to change my character, William Hoffman Zelaya, in The Oligarch. Doctor William is a flawless human being, if an imperfect guerrilla. Like Atticus, he stands up to racism and political oppression. I’ve lamented his perfection publicly for some time but seem incapable of making him more realistic. My William, like my Atticus, serves an author who needs his idealism more than his reality.