I can remember when I first sat down to read To Kill A Mockingbird. I was a freshman in high school, a mere fourteen years old. It was supposed to be an assignment for my Honors English class and we were only supposed to read a certain number of chapters at a time. It was a Saturday afternoon- by Sunday night I had finished it.
Atticus Finch became the idol of empathy, equality, kindness and justice I wanted to base my life on.
“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”
“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”
Atticus was a symbol of what humanity is at its best. While his relationship with Scout sometimes seemed cold and hyper-formal, I think it was important for him to be seen outside of the idolized father role. He wasn’t this man because Scout perceived him that way, he simply WAS that way.
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I know my mom and I have a thing, sometimes, when something horrible is going on in the world, or we feel that no one has the courage to say what really needs to be said- we say, “We need an Atticus.” It’s true, we need more people like Atticus Finch and less paid, ignorant, talking heads. We need wisdom and compassion and empathy.
“This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”
“Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there. You understand?”
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
So that brings us to now: Go Set A Watchman has been released and there is an upheaval at how this piece paints Atticus.
I have not read this work, and I’m not sure if I ever will…and here is why: I am a writer, I know the process, and I truly do not believe Harper Lee ever had any intentions of releasing the book- the Atticus in that story is not the character she wanted him to be.
Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill A Mockingbird. Anyone who has written, and I mean really written, knows that some of their best characters and themes are re-used and built from old ones that we tried and didn’t work. I have about 7 short stories and a few more unfinished pieces sitting in my desk right now. I have one in particular, I love the overall story/theme, I want to keep the main plot, the character is good- but the girl has got some issues…she needs work. I may develop her further in a different story…similar to the last but change some events for her sake. I could say the same with other characters from other stories I have- they aren’t what I want them to be. Maybe I could put them in a different situation? Maybe I could make their kids older or younger? Maybe keep the kids the same but for the story to really be the statement I want the main character needs to be changed.
Writing is a process. Maybe the Atticus in Go Set A Watchman was a character that needed work. By the time she completed TKAM he was a character that would withstand the test of time and culture.
Of course, there have been questions about the legalities of the release of Go Set A Watchman, questions concerning Lee’s mental state and health, and her comprehension about the publication. Was she pressured or coerced into it? Was she convinced that it was a good idea? We don’t know now, and I don’t know if we ever will. All I can say is that she published To Kill A Mockingbird as her sole work- and for decades she stood by it as her legacy. She could have published Go Set a Watchman at any point in time in the past 50 years, when she was completely and verifiably lucid. There are two different Atticus characters because the first run was not what she wanted… or he would have been the same in the book she choose to publish in 1960.
All of this being said. I stand by the Atticus I know. I stand by THAT Atticus being the man that Harper Lee wanted to give us. We need characters like him and we need his legacy to inspire further generations.
“but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.” Atticus Finch