|Atticus Finch--Now and forever a hero.|
Most of us have a manuscript or two under the bed or on a dusty shelf somewhere that should never see the light of day. Maybe it’s the first novel we ever attempted, before we knew how to properly construct a plot. Maybe it’s a romance with a hero and heroine that just didn’t have any chemistry. Maybe it’s that SF/fantasy epic with so much worldbuilding it collapsed of its own weight.
For whatever reason, those stories never made it and now rightfully reside in the graveyard of lessons learned, never to be resurrected.
But, of course, our names are not Harper Lee, and we didn’t write one of the Great American Novels in To Kill a Mockingbird. Up until this week, Ms. Lee, of Monroeville, Alabama, was known to have written one book and one book only, a beautiful, inspiring tale of a small-town hero standing strong against mob mentality, of racism and fairness, of a little girl’s precocious understanding of events that shook her world.
Having grown up in the South in the 50s and 60s, with a passionate belief in civil rights, I found both inspiration and vindication in this book when I read it as a young teenager. The impact doubled when I saw the classic movie with Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch—I’ve had a major crush on Peck ever since. He was everything a hero should be, in my mind. Not swaggering, just upright. Not shouting, just speaking the truth in that deep baritone. Doing what was right despite the danger. Then going home to tuck his kids in at night.
In the midst of the civil rights struggle of the 60s, what Atticus Finch did in that book set in the 30s took on massive significance. It was not easy to stand with the black community in those days. You could lose your friends, your social standing, your job, your home. In extreme cases you could lose your life, as several civil rights workers did. But marching in Selma or riding the buses in the Freedom Rides or signing up voters in Mississippi was the right thing to do. And for me, since I was too young to do those things, just defending them to my racist classmates and family was the right thing to do, too, though I’m not sure I changed many hearts.
So now after all these years, we learn that Harper Lee has written another book. Go Set a Watchman was released this week to much fanfare—public readings, celebrations in her hometown, champagne at publisher HarperCollins. And the big reveal? Turns out Atticus Finch was not a hero after all. Underneath it all he was just as racist as his neighbors. In this new book he shows his true colors as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and an active opponent of desegregation. Say it ain’t so.
Well, it ain’t necessarily so, as it turns out. This book is not new, but rather is the rejected first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of those dusty manuscripts that has been hiding under a bed for 55 years. When Ms. Lee took it to New York years ago in search of publication, she was advised to go back and focus on the story we’ve come to love—Scout’s memories of her father and the trial that gripped the town. Thank God she did. The rest was quite properly discarded.
The manuscript only came to light at all because Ms. Lee may now be suffering from dementia and is not in control of her faculties. (You may notice there have been no interviews with Ms. Lee, and no recent photographs.) The sister who protected her in her decline died recently, opening the way to exploitation by those who want to “build her estate” by any means possible. So something that should have been forgotten has been dredged up and served to a public that would love to have a new work from this beloved author.
But not this. Never this. Consider that the Atticus Finch we know from To Kill a Mockingbird would never have been capable of doing what he did if he had been a racist. He might have done his best to defend a client, but he would not have visited the client’s home, supported his family, gained the trust and respect of the black community. In a town the size of Maycomb, everything is known of everybody. His connections to the KKK would also have been known, and his true sentiments would have prevented him from going the extra mile, if only because he would have been reluctant to cut himself off from his white neighbors.
No. You will never make me believe Atticus Finch was a racist. I don’t care whether Harper Lee’s own father was a racist or became one under the pressure of desegregation. That is irrelevant. Atticus is a fictional character, a great and lasting one. His legacy deserves to remain unspoiled.
I won’t be buying a copy of the “new” book. I won’t be reading it. I protest, in the best spirit of the 60s. And I’m going now to burn every moldy manuscript and first draft I have hiding around the house. Just in case.