Will the Real Atticus Finch Please Stand Up?
Literature encourages tolerance - bigots and fanatics seldom have any use for the arts, because they're so preoccupied with their beliefs and actions that they can't see them also as possibilities. -Northrop Frye
Like thousands of readers, I riveted to the arrival of Go Set a Watchman from 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. Whether true or not, Atticus Finch is different. Atticus Finch is 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 pain to the change. 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 or the same thing…. 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 sitting alone and unarmed outside the jail to stop a lynch mob 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 one thing that could have made him more heroic would have been that he was willing to give his life for a principle even though he was racist. Not. Atticus Finch was flawless. It is the aspect of his character that led some to assert that Mockingbird is a children’s book, a fairy tale.
I want Mockingbird’s Atticus. But I’m drawn to commentators who relate the changes in him to the reality of the South of those times and these. Some speak of complicated childhoods in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. My mother, a flawed but good-hearted woman, took me to a movie in Atlanta in 1949. Its subject was a woman “passing for white.” I think—perhaps through rose-colored memory lenses—it was the first of her un-heroic ways of revealing to me the flaw in our legacy.
The reviews-of-Watchman brouhaha revealed to me my attachment to Mockingbird’s Atticus. 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.