The Liberation of Atticus Finch

I was initially reluctant to read Harper Lee's "new" book, Go set a Watchman.

Those preliminary impulses were fueled by the controversy that surrounded the "lost" manuscript had been found and given a "blessing" by Lee, who is reportedly in frail health in an assisted living facility. Moreover, for more than a half century, Lee has maintained her privacy and a steadfast commitment that there would not be another book.

Then came the revelation in Watchman, Lee's prequel/sequel to her tour de force classic To Kill a Mockingbird -- Atticus Finch is a racist. One of the most beloved fictional characters is flawed. How can that be? Say it ain't so!

Fortunately, I overcame my reluctance to read Watchman.

But what should we do now that we now know Atticus Finch is racist?

Strange as it may seem, after having read Watchman, I believe Lee has done us a favor.

Over the decades, adoration for Atticus Finch bordered, if not exceeded, deification. This phenomenon is enhanced by the fact that Atticus Finch is synonymous with film star Gregory Peck. For those who have read the book as well as seen Peck's academy-award-winning performance for his portrayal of Finch, it is nearly impossible not to see the two as inseparable.

I wonder if the response to Atticus' racist inclinations would have differed had Watchman been released, say, 50 years ago? What if Watchman was released just after the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

The country was very different in terms of race relations. There was no discussion of being a post racial nation, African-Americans becoming astronauts were inconceivable, let alone African-Americans becoming president of the United States.

Time has allowed us to shower Atticus Finch with adoration, exaltation and veneration almost beyond human recognition. Had his limitations come to light in 1965, it's quite possible they would have been viewed as normative, thus prohibiting him from ascending to such illustrious heights.

But Watchman reveals a truth central to the human condition: None of us are as moral as the ideals we embrace, not even Atticus Finch. There is perhaps no better example than Thomas Jefferson.

When the principle author of the Declaration of Independence penned: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal," it is perhaps the essential passage in what serves as America's mission statement.

The first time Jefferson publicly introduced notions of equality was in his pro-bono defense of Samuel Howell a runaway slave in 1770.

Jefferson wrote:

"All men are born free. And everyone comes into the world with a right to their own person and using it at his own will." That single statement reveals the warring factions between Jefferson's commitment to the Enlightenment as well as the hypocrisy that he lived.

Jefferson, the ardent defender of individual liberty... but he owned slaves; he was a fiscal conservative who personally lived deeply in debt; and he possessed an avid distrust of government authority, who, as president, would engage in unprecedented abuses of power.

And there was the decades-long relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, which many believe was his enslaved sister-in-law that reportedly produced six children.

Does Jefferson's flaws diminish his contribution to formulating the American experiment in my view? Not at all. The same holds true for Atticus Finch.

As much as we want to keep Atticus Finch on the pedestal of perfection, the embodiment of what we should strive for, Watchman forces us to see him not from the lofty heights of our perceived ideals, but rather from the uncomfortable close proximity of our own foibles.

Nevertheless, Atticus Finch courageously defends Tom Robinson in Mockingbird despite the fervor of mob mentality and people who view the trial as a needless perfunctory exercise because the mere accusation of a black man raping a white woman in the South is already guilty in the court of public opinion, which is an idea still present in Watchman. He's a bit more tattered, his shortcomings more visible, much more difficult to immortalize in literally lore, but he's still there, still Atticus.

But Lee has unleashed Atticus Finch from the shackles of blind adoration, giving us someone who is closer to reality, whose greatness is intertwined with his shortcomings. Is that not something we can all understand?