Until this summer, the legacy of Atticus Finch, small-town lawyer, believer in justice and fairness for mankind, was safely encapsulated in a half-century’s worth of character reverie.
This Gulf Coast-ish summer bloomed problems for that character when Harper Lee’s old-new novel
Go Set a Watchman
is a rough draft of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel,
To Kill a Mockingbird
, Jem’s dead. Scout lives in New York. Maycomb is once more bursting at the seams with racial rhetoric.
And then there’s Atticus.
This time around, as you may have heard, Atticus is staunchly segregationist.
A concerned public has clutched at literary pearls with worry as if this novel might destroy Lee’s reputation. With the unveiling of
, the book world has been set on its ear.
Readers have been shocked and
. Those sentiments have echoes in reviews from
The New York Times
The Los Angeles Times
The New Yorker
The reading public has a rift between the character they knew and loved, and this revealing of what he was originally envisioned as.
“Atticus Finch in his 50s represents the best aspects of Southern manhood — physical gallantry, intellectual cunning, folkish wisdom, courage under pressure and political idealism — but in direct opposition to the racist ideology of the Jim Crow South,” says Tom Zoellner, Chapman University, Associate Professor of
Maybe it is possible that these people who never lived can also hurt our feelings, in a very personal way. Readers take their character relationship very personally.
The personalities of Atticus Finch and Jean Louise (A.K.A. Scout), Tom Robinson, Boo Radley and Jem Finch in Maycomb County were brought to life in the 1962 film adaptation of
To Kill and Mockingbird
, which won Gregory Peck as Atticus an Academy Award for “Best Actor.” Peck’s own civil rights legacy is intertwined with his portrayal of Atticus.
Mildred L. Lewis, Chapman Assistant Professor,
Department of English
, said that the film-role of Atticus didn’t even scratch the surface of Peck’s real-life commitment to civil rights, which is a part of what cements Peck/Atticus as hero in our film folklore. The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch as the the
number one hero
in ranking 100 years of film heroes an villains.
“Investing in stars or in fictional characters can create tricky ethical dilemmas when dissonant, unwanted revelations happen,” Lewis said. “Consider the Bill Cosby debacle where it is clear that many people conflated the fictional character of Cliff Huxtable with Bill Cosby. And to be fair, there is overlap. That is what happens with stars. They have a dependable persona that they deploy across a range of films that in many – but not all – ways merges with that of the real life actor.”
Lewis said that of course this kind of sharp change in character development would be extremely disturbing to those who adhere to Atticus-as-hero concepts.
“Gregory Peck was not only a civil rights advocate in real life, his persona as an actor and star was defined by a nobility and grace that wasn’t present to the same degree in Watchman or Mockingbird,” Lewis said.
Looking at Atticus through a different lens means seeing flaws that were erased by a careful editor 55 years ago.
Lewis explains that on a deeper level, even if the readers don’t like it, racism exists as something more than just a character flaw. Racism, for Atticus, Lewis said, was a part of the very air his character would have breathed all his life.
“It seems completely possible and plausible to me that Atticus could be both profoundly invested in justice and still harbor racist sentiments,” Lewis said. “Or that he was very liberal/progressive in his youth and middle age then became very conservative as he grew older.”
However, the thing that readers need to keep in mind is this book is not a sequel, Lewis said.
“This was very much a first draft and shouldn’t be seen as Mockingbird II. It’s instead a peek inside the library kitchen. Harper Lee was writing her way toward an American classic with clear-cut moral lines,” Lewis said. “As a historical document,
Go Set a Watchman
shows how Lee and her editor were sanding down ambiguities and strengthening dramatic arcs to make the biggest bang possible with the greatest number of readers. Everyone who has tried to write a novel — and not given up — will understand.”
This Atticus, while he’s the original Atticus, isn’t the one that was chosen. This jaded adult Scout isn’t the one who made the cut. Lewis reminds us, this is a story set in a different place, in a different time.
Devoted fans of the book remind us that while their beloved characters aren’t real people, the new book is not easily embraced. Char Williams, Director of Institutional Events, is, by her own admission, a little obsessed with
To Kill a Mockingbird
. She has copies of the book in more than 50 languages. She’s watched the movie untold number of times. Atticus and Scout are her heroes. So when
came out, trailing controversy, she wasn’t intending on reading it.
Curiosity got the better of her.
“I feel like I have some PTSD from reading it the first time,” Williams says.
It’s her second time around this week. And what about Atticus?
“I really had to ask myself this question: Am I in love with with Atticus because of who I think he is (in
” Williams said. “Or am I in love with him as a character played by Gregory Peck?”
One thing is for certain. Harper Lee still has us talking. Join the conversation and post your thoughts below.