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The Atticus Finch we don’t want to know

The Atticus Finch we don’t want to know

Gregory Peck as Atticus and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The literary world rejoiced when news broke that reclusive author Harper Lee was soon to release her second book Go Set A Watchman – 55 years since the 1960 publication of To Kill A Mockingbird.

As one of the most lauded novels in American history, Harper Lee’s Southern Gothic and coming-of-age story introduces the world to the beloved fictional character of Atticus Finch.

Finch – the father of six-year-old precocious Scout, the novel’s narrator – is a widower and small-town Alabama attorney who becomes our moral conscience and standard-bearer of justice and integrity.

Against the background of Jim Crow’s old South, Atticus Finch’s becomes the lawyer of Tom Robinson – an African American man falsely accused but unfortunately found guilty of raping a white woman. His tireless defense catapulted him as one of the most celebrated heroic figures in American film and literature.

In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus as the greatest movie hero of all time. Atticus is a model for many of today’s lawyers and a popular baby name.

Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird states to Scout: ‘Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand,’ as a thoughtful and measured response decrying racial prejudice. So no one would imagine Lee’s second novel Go Set A Watchman would depict Atticus as an aging, angry bigot and separatist.

News of Atticus taking a 180-degree turn has sent shockwaves around the world.

Go Set A Watchmen is set 20 years after Lee’s 1930s Depression-era first novel. Atticus, now 72, see his world changing unimaginablu with the 1954 landmark US Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education, to desegregate public schools and facilitates ‘with all deliberate speed’.

‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’ Atticus asks Scout in Go Set A Watchman.

Scout is now 26, uses her birth name, Jean Louise, and lives in New York City as a writer. Atticus warns his daughter during her recent summer trip home that ‘if the Negro vote edged out the white, you’d have Negroes in every county office,’ – including as mayor of Maycomb.

Atticus warns: ‘We’re outnumbered here [in Maycomb].’ ‘Our Negro population is backward.’ That the black population has ‘made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways.’ ‘Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’

Atticus is a eugenicist who reads racist tracts like The Black Plague and attends Maycomb County White Citizens’ Council in order to organize and resist federal government edicts to desegregate. He views the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as opportunists and troublemakers. He even joined America’s most horrific domestic terrorist group, the Klu Klux Klan, in his youth. You can surmise he would resist the removal of the Confederate battle flag from Alabama’s State House.

Jean Louise finds inner strength and wisdom to love Atticus in spite of his contradictions, hypocrisy and bigotry.

Many critics are questioning the veracity of Lee’s authorship of her second book or her willingness to have it published. But both books reveal our cultural dis-ease with race, particularly the reality and limits of Atticus’s old-style Southern liberalism – paternalistic while upholding the fallacious doctrine of ‘separate and equal’ to keep blacks in their place.

Lee’s new portrait of Atticus will undoubtedly re-open discussion about race and Atticus’s hero status in Mockingbird that Boston Globe writer Hillel Italie aptly points out ‘has been admired more by whites than by blacks’ due to the literary troupe of the ‘white savior’.

The literary troupe of the ‘white savior,’ – as also depicted in Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help – makes the assumption African Americans are not agents in their liberation struggles. It erases as well as insults the civil rights movement.

The title Go Set a Watchman is taken from the Biblical Book of Isaiah, chapter 21, verse 6, which reads: ‘This is what the Lord says to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him report what he sees.’” The phrase means to go out into the world and set a moral compass by ‘speaking truth to power’.

In so doing, perhaps now with an accurate portrait of Atticus Finch, we can begin to have an honest discussion on race.