Andrew Cattanach asks, is it such a bad thing that Atticus Finch has a darker side?
A day ahead of the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the long awaited sequel/parent/companion to To Kill a Mockingbird, and the reviews are beginning to emerge.
Predictably, they’re mixed, with many journalists somehow expecting Watchman to be on a par with, or even eclipsing, Mockingbird. This was never going to be the case although, as our own John Purcell noted earlier last week to Better Reading:
‘If Go Set a Watchman was the seed and To Kill a Mockingbird the flower, there will be enough in the former to make it an essential companion to the latter.’
Many early reviews focus on surprise bigotry of the older Atticus Finch. One of American literature’s great heroes in Mockingbird, Watchman finds Finch, now 72, voicing his displeasure at the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools and tells the older Scout that he once attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
This has led, despite only a handful of people in the world actually having read the book, to a twitter meltdown…
Atticus Finch has been my husband since 8th grade and I don’t think i’ll be able to handle him being a racist.
— champagne mami (@superdupertayy) July 13, 2015
I can’t believe Harper Lee would ruin such an inspiring literary hero as Atticus Finch. — Hannah Hughes (@hannahughes) July 12, 2015
The more reviews I read the more determined I am not to read #GoSetAWatchman so that I still have my wonderful Atticus
— daniel pilkington (@djpapilko) July 12, 2015
Atticus grew older & turned against the civil rights movement. Heart-breaking for fans of the 1st book, but the stuff of great literature.
— Joe Hill (@joe_hill) July 11, 2015
It seems we are on the eve of millions of childhoods being ruined and one of literature’s great heroes being irrevocably tainted. But you know what?
Harper Lee doesn’t care.
She was angry about racism in the South, and clearly still is. Angry enough to have kept the manuscript of Watchman all this time, eventually releasing it as she enters her final years. She knew this would change the perception of Atticus Finch forever, but maybe that’s the price that she feels has to be paid.
Let’s not forget (SPOILER ALERT) that in Mockingbird, despite the significant evidence of Tom Robinson’s innocence, the jury convicts him of rape, and he is then shot and killed while trying to escape from prison. Lee doesn’t believe in happy endings, so why should Atticus grow into a wise, sweet old man? Why shouldn’t one of the great black and white characters in literature become grey in old age, the lines between right and wrong blur in his deteriorating mind as they do in the town that he has lived in for most of his life?
It’s also worth noting that Harper Lee’s own father Amasa Coleman Lee, who was a voice for civil rights and defended African Americans in court on many occasions, was himself a segregationist for most of his life.
“Mr. Lee was a Deep South Southerner,” Charles Shields wrote in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. “Up until middle-age, he agreed with the status quo: Birds of a feather flock together, white people should be around white people and black people should be around black people.” Mr. Lee reversed his position in the late 1950s.
Let us hope that the current generation of readers and critics are able to put sentimentality aside and see Go Set a Watchman for what it is. A study of change and the brittle, often unsettling, complexities of the human condition. If you feel confronted by the reassessment of Atticus Finch, so be it, but know that in all likelihood that’s exactly what Harper Lee wants.
by Harper Lee
Set during the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later.
Scout has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father Atticus.
She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand both her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.
An instant classic.
About the Author
Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, a village that is still her home. She attended local schools and the University of Alabama. Before she started writing she lived in New York, where she worked in the reservations department of an international airline.
She has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, two honorary degrees and various other literary awards. Her chief interests apart from writing are nineteenth- century literature and eighteenth- century music, watching politicians and cats, travelling and being alone.
About the Contributor
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
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