Atticus Finch Is As Atticus Finch Was

The lower front cover of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

Here’s part of the Reuters report on sales of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, issued a week after the official publishing date:

It made headlines with its depiction of noble lawyer Atticus Finch as a racist and bigot, a stark contrast to the idealistic, younger Finch of Mockingbird who put his principles on the line to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

The lower front cover of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.
The lower front cover of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

This sort of brief synopsis reflects the wider description of the sequel (prequel?) to Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winner as its release date approached. This, despite the indisputable fact that even a moderately intelligent reading of Watchman makes Atticus Finch out to be anything but a racist. Neither is he a dyed-in-the-sheet member of the Ku Klux Klan, as early news leaks had it.

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The now 72-year-old Atticus is very much who and what he was as depicted in Mockingbird. He’s very much as Gregory Peck portrayed him in the role that won him his Oscar. Were Peck alive today to appear in the (inevitable?) movie adaptation, he’d have no worry having to reshape his indelible performance. (The real question is whether any actor can replace him. Harrison Ford? The original Boo Radley, Robert Duvall?)

After traveling through Watchman and then a thorough rereading of Mockingbird, I think there’s a significant observation to be drawn from the hullabaloo. To paraphrase Cormac McCarthy, we live in no country for nuance.

Americans nowadays give the impression that everything must be black or white, cut-and-dried and easily grasped. Forget those 50 shades of grey — they’re for chick-lit fantasies. Americans prefer the hard-and-fast fact as something uncomplicated in what is a confusing existence.

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"In the name of God, do your duty!"
“In the name of God, do your duty!”

So, in Watchman, several of Atticus’ remarks about race, and his attendance at a meeting of the Klan, brand him instantly a racist — an unrepentant one at that. Although HarperCollins’ sales figures indicate that the book remains the bestseller that it was from the first announcement of its very existence, it may be that some Mockingbird devotees are holding off because they don’t want to be disabused of their long-standing fixation on their hero. (Will the recent popularity of Atticus as a boy’s name wilt? We’ll have to wait and see.)

The irony here is that the media and public response to Atticus as a racist Klansman mirrors the response, in Watchman, of the now 30-ish Jean Louise Finch — known to us in Mockingbird as Scout. She thinks she has observed this unexpectedly disturbing behavior in the father she long idolized. As did her (now deceased) brother Jem, their servant Calpurnia, and almost every friend and neighbor in the Finch’s small Southern community.

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It’s Jean Louise’s response that Lee examines in her book, the true theme of which is the nuance of behavior. Lee is writing about the acquisition of maturity through an understanding and acceptance of life’s pesky nuances, its annoying subtleties. It’s about Jean Louise coming to understand, if not accede to, Atticus’s point of view in an American South only just beginning to grapple with the changes set into motion by the civil rights movement.

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In the massive media disquisitions on the discovery (rediscovery?) of the Watchman manuscript, the question mark remains Lee’s acquiescence to its publication. She’s issued statements through others that she’s happy with the book going to market, but is she? If she’s given such a thumbs-up directly to reporters, I’ve missed it.

Harper Lee in 2007, after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Harper Lee in 2007, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

On the other hand, and again if I recall correctly, Lee had insisted for decades that there would be no second book. It occurs to me that perhaps after she’d written a second book — this second book, which bears all the markings of her prose style — she decided not to publish because she foresaw how it could be misconstrued. If that was her thinking, how prescient she’s turned out to be.

The upshot is that if readers aren’t reluctant to grapple with nuance — isn’t fiction the art of doing so? — then Watchman is a fine companion for Mockingbird. It’s also the story of Jean Louise’s sentimental journey from New York City, where she’s been living and working and slowly integrating northeast-liberal political attitudes, back to her native home in Maycomb, Alabama, where progressive citizens, her dad foremost among them, are attempting to acclimate to new social norms and realizing they’re far from comfortable with the rapid pace at which they’re occurring.

Listening to Atticus during a courthouse meeting from the “colored” balcony where, pointedly, Scout observed her father defending Tom Robinson in Mockingbird, Jean Louise hears him express guarded opinions on the status of African-Americans — not a term, by the way, he would have used. Learning that Atticus has attended a Klan meeting, she draws the same quick conclusion that many people would.

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Incidentally, while dismissing the Ku Klux Klan in Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout the Klan has disappeared from Maycomb and won’t return. If there’s any discrepancy between the first and second novels, it’s that in Watchman, Atticus isn’t explicit about the Klan’s having returned.

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In every other aspect, the Watchman Atticus is the same as the Mockingbird Atticus. A valid criticism may be that in the late passages where Atticus answers to Jean Louise’s repudiation of him, Lee allows their exchange to take on the aspect of an arid debate. His rationale for going to the Klan meeting makes perfect sense in the scene, but feels schematic.

Possibly the greatest Mockingbird asset is its pitch-perfect portrait of childhood. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that — as Jean Louise interacts with Atticus’s fussy sister, Alexandra, as well as with other familiar Mockingbird characters, and there’s even another pending defense-lawyer case for Attitcus — Watchman is a wise novel about coming to grips with the loss of childish perceptions and the concomitant acquisition of adult insight.

No, Atticus isn’t the Watchman disappointment. If anything is, it’s that there’s no reference to Arthur Radley, known to one and all in and out of the book as Boo. Yes, Scout does say at the end of Mockingbird, “I never saw him again.” It would have been a boon, though, to hear any word about him.