This post was originally published on my personal blog, but because this blog has been neglected for far too long, I thought I would post it here as well. What follows is my response to the complaints of so many that with the publishing of Go Set a Watchman, the heroic Atticus of our youth has somehow changed.
"My Atticus" from Life in Limbo
I stayed up past my bedtime to finish reading Go Set a Watchman for
book club tomorrow (well, technically, later today). And even though I
should be getting some sleep, I can't stop thinking and feeling about
this book. So I'm blogging.
It wasn't until the day of
the book's release that I learned about Atticus-the-racist and
Atticus-the-Klan-member. But I knew I'd still buy and read the book; how
could I not? I was prepared for the worst. I was prepared to hate this
different version of my literary hero. I was all set with my most
dependable emotional defense mechanisms, intent on not allowing whatever
happened in this book to color my view of To Kill a Mockingbird. I resolved to finish the book and quickly set it aside if that became necessary.
But all of these preparations were uncalled-for.
I don't care what anyone says. I don't care if you think that the characters evolved between Harper Lee's draft of Go Set a Watchman and her writing of To Kill a Mockingbird. For
me, the Atticus Finch that I just read across 278 pages is the same
Atticus Finch I have idolized since eighth grade. And I want to explain
I think my relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird will
sound similar to most. It was required reading in junior high, and
after we finished the book we watched the movie. I loved both. Like many
people do, I saw my own father in Atticus. My dad, the defense attorney
who taught me to believe in the presumption of innocence with a fervor
that would shape my education and career goals. The man who taught with
gentleness, kindness, and love. Yes, of course, Atticus was my father in
so many ways.
And I think both men--the one who worked
hard to provide me with a comfortable upbringing and the one in black
and white print who will forever look like Gregory Peck in my
mind--played a role in my decision to attend law school. Obviously my
dad had more of an influence there, always talking to me about the law,
sharing his love with me. But the first thing I hung on my refrigerator
when I moved to Omaha, a week before starting law school, was a
laminated quotation from To Kill a Mockingbird wherein Atticus
extols the benefits and necessity of the jury system. I read that quote
often, a near-constant reminder of why I was there, doing what I was
Toward the end of law school, I had a few
unsettling experiences. It might not seem strange from an outsider's
perspective, but it was hard for me to handle. My dad saw me compete in
and win a regional trial team competition, and the way he spoke to me
afterward informed me that the dynamic between us had shifted ever so
slightly. He was complimentary about my performance, as any good father
would be, but there was more to it than that. He seemed to admire what I
had done. He treated me like his equal. This happened a few more times.
Once he called and asked me a legal question. My dad is brilliant, but
he was asking me a question. I'm brand new in this profession. My dad is
still my example and the embodiment of so many goals I have for myself.
But in my childhood, that example seemed unattainable. He was perfect
in my eyes. He was, in so many ways, a god.
As I grow
older and my understanding of the law deepens, I'm confronted with the
fact that my dad doesn't know everything. This is something I honestly
would not have believed 15 years ago. Along similar lines, I have
finally developed a social and political identity entirely separate from
my parents'. My dad sometimes makes comments that startle me. I have a
hard time understanding some of his political views. When we disagree, I
am made more aware of his humanness. These subtle shifts in our
relationship haven't led to me loving or respecting my dad any less.
Instead, I respect and love him differently. I'm an adult, and a
parent/child relationship looks different from a parent/adult-child
So, back to the book. I don't think it's
spoiling much to tell you that Atticus can accurately be described as
racist. But you know what? So is Jean Louise. I mean, it was written in
the 50's. But the father's and daughter's brands of racism are
Jean Louise is more liberal than
her father; she thinks states should desegregate. She believes an
individual's potential in life should not be hampered by his skin color.
But at the risk of sounding like an apologist, I'd submit that Atticus
actually agrees with this latter belief. He just has a more
paternalistic view about the process. He has an us/them mentality and
seems to think that "we" know best; "they" aren't ready for equal
rights. He doesn't seem to resent the progress that has been made since
the Civil War. But he does think that progress should continue at a
"natural" pace rather than being forced too quickly. Jean Louise holds
the simpler view that all men are created equal, and there's nothing
equal about waiting for change.
When Jean Louise
realizes the views her father holds, her world seems to fall apart. She
feels like her childhood was built on lies; her father defended a black
man accused of rape on principle but now talks about blacks like they're
less-than. Jean Louise implicitly realizes that the father of her
childhood looks different from her position as an adult. In similar
fashion, the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird looks different from the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman. But isn't that what you'd expect? In Mockingbird, Scout sees her father as a god. In Watchman, Jean Louise grapples with the understanding that her father is human.
don't think the two Atticuses are inconsistent. I don't think you have
to abandon your admiration of one in order to accept the other. I think
the two books and the two Atticuses and the two Scouts are
representative of the divide between childhood and adulthood. A loss of
innocence. The shedding of naiveté. And I think it's simplistic and
unfair to say, "Oh, treat this as an unfinished manuscript. It's not
really a companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. It shares only the barest similarities." That takes away from the beauty of Go Set a Watchman.
It is a beautiful and heartbreaking book because it forces you to
confront how we treat our heroes and idols and how we react when we
realize they're flawed. I can't separate that lesson, which is contained
between the covers, from that same lesson that is taught when we, as
readers, hold Mockingbird and Watchman side-by-side and ask ourselves, "Who is my Atticus?"