CULTURE & ARTS

What Will Readers Make Of A Bigoted Atticus Finch?

Until last Friday, Atticus Finch was easily literature’s most infallible fictional father.

Until last Friday, Atticus Finch was easily literature’s most infallible fictional father. His wisdom, humble nature and unbiased pursuit of justice was one of To Kill a Mockingbird’s central tenets. But an early review of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchmen ― written before Mockingbird but set decades later ― revealed Finch to be a “bigot.”

How are readers to reconcile the new light cast on Atticus with the noble proclamations he made in Lee’s earlier book? And how can the same man who stood in front of a narrow-minded jury to announce, “I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system ― that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality,” be found meddling in Klan-related activity?

The wild difference between Mockingbird Atticus and Watchman Atticus has fans of the former novel understandably riled (the change is especially upsetting for those who’ve gone so far as to name their children after the lawyer). And hypotheses abound.

Jonathan Sturgeon at Flavorwire notes that Atticus wasn’t quite as forward-thinking as we’d like to remember; he was socially conservative, if progressive relative to other Maycomb residents, and was assigned to the Tom Robinson case by a judge. The New York Times writes that the discrepancies could be due to the extensive editing Mockingbird underwent (Watchman, on the other hand, was edited only lightly). Or, could Atticus’s character have changed with age and disillusionment with the court system? 

The stir surrounding Atticus adds to skepticism on the part of critics about the release of Watchman. When Lee submitted it before writing Mockingbird, editors said it showed promise, but wasn’t quite up to snuff. So, why publish it now? (Full disclosure: I made my stance clear in February, writing, “Our idolization of authors often leads to a greedy quest to absorb everything they’ve produced, regardless of their personal wishes and, perhaps most importantly, the best interest of their storytelling legacies.”)

HuffPost Live posed the same questions to a panel of book reviewers: in publishing Watchman, “What are we trying to protect? Who are we trying to protect? Are we trying to protect Harper Lee? Are we trying to protect this cultural artifact?” In the clip, Wall Street Journal writer Sam Sacks responds, explaining that the most lasting impact ― other than altering adult readers’ memories of the classic ― will be how Mockingbird is taught in schools going forward. 

So, the fate of Go Set a Watchman ― as well as the motivations of Lee’s publisher, Atticus, and Lee herself ― will be more clear once teachers and other fans get their hands on it Tuesday.

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