Many writers have only one great book in them-Joseph Heller and Catch-22 immediately comes to mind-but only a few have the self-awareness to publish just that one great book. Harper Lee was one of that number until the “re-discovery” of Go Set A Watchman, which is being published tomorrow. I am neither a fanatical Lee devotee nor one of those people who say that To Kill A Mockingbird perpetuates the white savior complex. I like the book, but haven’t re-read it in many years. I’ve seen the film multiple times and believe that much of the cult of Atticus Finch comes from Gregory Peck’s brilliant performance in the movie. In many ways, Peck embued Atticus with his own best qualities as a kindly, progressive, honorable, and thoroughly decent man. Hence, the myth of Atticus Finch.
I was originally skeptical about the publication of Ms. Lee’s new/old book. I thought it could even be a fake. It obviously is not. But I knew there had to be a reason why the manuscript had not seen the light of day. I think we’ve learned what it is. Go Set A Watchman was written *before* Mockingbird, which sprang to life because Lee’s editor saw more potential in the author’s childhood and the Atticus defends a black man sub-plot than in the book as a whole.
Harper Lee’s unexpected new novel offers an unexpected and startling take on an American literary saint, Atticus Finch.
“Go Set a Watchman” is set in the 1950s, 20 years after Lee’s celebrated “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and finds Atticus hostile to the growing civil rights movement. In one particularly dramatic encounter with his now-adult daughter, Scout, the upright Alabama lawyer who famously defended a black man in “Mockingbird” condemns the NAACP as opportunists and troublemakers and labels blacks as too “backward” to “share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.”
“Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em”? argues the man portrayed by Oscar-winner Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation of “Mockingbird.”
“They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.”
As a white male who has lived in the Deep South for half of my life, none of this surprises me. I know many older white folks who are politically liberal but still hold some racist views and don’t consider black folks to be their social equals. This includes people who have voted twice for Barack Obama. I am not making this up. It’s not just Confederate battle flag waving white conservatives.
I don’t usually expend much compassion on fictional characters but I feel sorry for Atticus Finch. I never saw the character as a “saint” but as a principled man taking a stand against small town intolerance and ingrained stupidity. Unfortunately, others saw him as a secular saint. There’s an article in Slate about the reactions of people who named their children after a fictional character they admired. I find this to be somewhat culturally bizarre, the Greek custom is to name one’s children after relatives, which has led to many Nicholases, Annas, and Peters in my extended family. Call me old school but I think the best names come from loved ones and not from a listicle of trendy names.
Back to Harper Lee and white Southern liberals of the 1950’s. As hard as it is for people in 2015 to wrap their minds around, there used to be such a thing as liberal white segregationists. For example, Earl Long didn’t believe in social equality BUT he believed black folks deserved decent treatment and eventual political equality. Uncle Earl was briefly confined to a loony bin for saying these things in public. He was wrong but still a helluva lot better than the Thurmonds, Eastlands, and their ilk.
We all know that Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson used the N-word in private. Does that destroy their stellar public records on Civil Rights issues? Not one bit. Truman desegregated the armed forces and ran on a platform containing the first strong Civil Rights plank in the history of the Democratic party. As for LBJ, he was THE civil rights President. The language he used behind closed doors is much less important than his public record. Deeds are more important than words.
Do I condone lingering racist beliefs and language? Hell no, but the fictional Atticus Finch’s racism in the new/old book needs to be put in the context of the man and his times. He took a courageous stand years before, but had a hard time adjusting to changing times. That makes him a fully realized character instead of a plaster saint. I have a pre-publication hunch that Atticus doesn’t run around town saying ugly, bigoted things to black folks. People are complicated, y’all, even the fictional ones.
I couldn’t resist using a semi-inflammatory post title because it scans well . Plus, it will get people’s attention better than, say, Nuanced Thoughts About Atticus Finch and Southern Liberalism. Besides, what’s a little hyperbole among friends?
Finally, I’ve read the first chapter of Go Set A Watchman online at the Guardian. I thought it was pretty good but I’m not planning on camping out at Barnes & Noble or even Octavia Books to buy a copy. I think it would be best for people to read the entire book rather than jumping to conclusions about its contents. Of course, we live in the era of extreme conclusion jumping, so I don’t expect my advice to be heeded. It’s why I rarely offer unsolicited advice even when I know I’m right. So it goes.