The heroes of our high-school reading lists help shape our national consciousness. For decades we have read and reread The Great Gatsby to examine Jay Gatsby’s enterprise and devotion; Catcher in the Rye for Holden’s individuality and need for authenticity; Huckleberry Finn for Huck’s scrappiness and innocence. These characters strike something in us, and speak to who we are and want to be.
So what happens when we find out one of our most widely adored heroes is not who we think he is? What is lost, or gained? How does our response measure our own willingness to grow?
I set out to explore these questions in my independent research on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The highly anticipated sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird repositioned lawyer-hero Atticus Finch as a neurotic white supremacist. Atticus’s obstruction of federal integration efforts skews far from the famous image of Gregory Peck (who played Finch in the 1962 film), fatherly and noble, defending a disabled black man from allegations of raping a white woman.
Mockingbird fans (like myself) bought Watchman in droves, making it 2015’s best-selling book and one of the biggest releases in literary history. But its quick sales were matched by widespread rejection and outrage. Watchman was wiped clean from public discourse, academic interest and potential spots on curriculums and syllabi before the end of the year. I found it hard to believe that the novel’s understated literary quality or the controversy surrounding its publication (whether Lee was in sound mind when it was decided Watchman would be published) contributed to this massive fallout. I believe the reason is much more personal: a threat to Atticus Finch is a threat to an entire readership’s sense of doing right.
Way before Watchman, in 1992, Hofstra law professor Monroe Freedman declared that Atticus was a poor role model for aspiring lawyers. Freedman drew attention to Finch’s passivity towards injustice in his day-to-day life: after all, in Mockingbird, Finch hopes that black citizens do not demand equality during his children’s lifetimes; remains idle on segregation despite being an influential lawyer and member of the state legislature; and admits to avoiding cases like Tom’s (he only accepts Robinson’s case, many forget, because Judge Taylor makes him). This attack on Finch’s moral eminence prompted a wave of backlash.
Such an example demonstrates how admiration for Atticus’s better qualities replaced questions of any possible flaw. When the problematics of Atticus Finch were laid bare by none other than his creator, this behavior repeated itself. Watchman was rejected while Mockingbird continued to be taught across America. If Atticus is preserved as a perfect example of righteousness, it protects readers from having to face the possibility that maybe they, too, abet rather than combat racism.
We must accept that the Atticus Finch Lee gives us in Mockingbird is the same Atticus she gives us in Watchman. Finch does nothing in Mockingbird to make us believe he is not the same man who reviles the NAACP and the prospect of integrated schools. A privileged white attorney, he gives Tom Robinson a fair representation in court, but that sense of fairness — that all should be equal in the eyes of the law — never translates into justice. The maintenance of the law is far from challenging Maycomb’s racial hierarchy. In fact, he declares the courts are a “great leveler” while all the black spectators at Tom Robinson’s trial watch from a segregated balcony.
In reading Watchman as a restoration of Lee’s original Atticus — fair but flawed — I hope to make the case for its consideration alongside Mockingbird. We should not abandon Atticus Finch, but instead use him as an example (between both novels) to illustrate the difference between fairness and justice, the subtleties of racism and ultimately how to handle the flaws of the ones we love. Accepting this unified version forces us, as well, to acknowledge our flaws in the pursuit of justice, and that we, alongside Atticus, are still coming into our own.