I’ve had some time to collect my thoughts on the upcoming publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and its depiction of Atticus Finch. So, if you care to read my rather long and hopefully-coherent ramblings, keep reading….
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, and Atticus Finch has been my literary hero ever since I read it. I actually never really saw Atticus as a champion of civil rights. He was not someone to lead protests or public demonstrations. He was simply a quiet, decent man who tried to do what was right in his personal, family, and social life. And defending Tom Robinson was the right thing to do. Reading Mockingbird made me strive to be a better person. Many times when I have been tempted to judge someone, I remember Atticus’s words, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
When the reviews came out about Go Set a Watchman calling Atticus Finch to be a racist bigot, my first reaction (like many) was disbelief, sadness, and anger. Never did I imagine that I would see the words “racist” and “Atticus” together. I mean, not even The Onion could come up with a more shocking headline!
I know that Watchman is neither a sequel nor a prequel. It’s basically Lee’s first novel which was first rejected, then rewritten and revised to become Mockingbird. But still, it’s hard for me to believe that Lee initially created Atticus as close-minded and against integration. I felt betrayed.
Why? Why does this discovery about a fictional character upset me (and so many others)?
I began to realize that because books have become a sort of refuge for me. We live in a crazy, unjust world where armed policement shoot unarmed people, where wicked men gun down innocent people in a church. Readers, like me, turn to books as a form of escapism. We turn to stories like Mockingbird where there may be ugliness, but where ultimately we find goodness. We look up to characters like Atticus because he shows us not what we are, but what we could be. And we take comfort in the fact that, no matter what happens in the world, we can open a book and find a place unaffected by the changing world.
But now with the release of Watchman, we feel that our fictional world has been shattered. Our beloved hero, who was like a father to us all, has not always been what we thought he was. It’s like the one thing we had left to hold on to is gone.
Yes, I know the Atticus of Mockingbird will always be there. The publication of Watchman will not change who he is. But I think it is wrong for the publishers to package Watchman as if it were a new novel or a sequel to Mockingbird, essentially canonizing this racist version of Atticus (especially as it is questionable whether Harper Lee is capable of giving her consent to its publication right now). And now, whenever Mockingbird is taught in schools, Watchman will now become the subtext, changing the way future generations view Atticus. That is what’s so sad about this whole thing: that publishers and literary critics will redefine Atticus and his legacy into something different from the author’s original intent.
Will I read Go Set a Watchman? I don’t know. But if I do, I will read it for what it really is: an early draft of Mockingbird. Also, I don’t think we can truly form an opinion on this version of Atticus until we’ve read it and “consider[ed] things from his point of view”, so to speak. But we must remember that Harper Lee ultimately has the last word on Atticus Finch. And she gave that to us in To Kill a Mockingbird.
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 11, spoken by the character Atticus