Spoiler Alert: Atticus Finch Isn’t Perfect.
(I Can Live With That. Can You?)
So: in the NY Times review of “Go Set A Watchman,” Harper Lee’s new/old novel, we learn that Atticus Finch, the sainted father figure of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” shares some of the ugly racism of his place (small-town Alabama), and times (the mid-1950s), 20 years after the “Mockingbird” events.
And already, many fans of the first novel are freaking out:
Say It Ain’t So! First Woody Allen, then Bill Cosby, now even Atticus– are there no heroes left at all??? (Any day now, I expect to see some shameful disclosures about Sponge Bob Square Pants.)
Some are insisting they won’t go near the new novel, to preserve their sacred memories of an iconic father/crusader-for-justice figure, who looks just like Gregory Peck.
I sympathize: the “Mockingbird” movie always turns me into a blubbering fool, and I STILL want to be Atticus/Peck when I grow up. Who would willingly put all that at risk?
But I won’t easily be joining the ranks of the shocked & disillusioned when I follow Miss Jean Louise (tho she’ll always be Scout to me) on her fateful journey back home as a grown woman.
I’ll hold off on a pre-emptive literary judgment on the novel itself til I read it (counting down the hours); but as a slice drawn from actual history & life, the good Atticus/bad Atticus (or as I prefer, the Easy-Simple Atticus vs the Complex-More Human Atticus) is a no-brainer.
See, I’ve BTDT– Been There & Done That. For instance (one of many) I learned long ago that the Martin Luther King I shared a jail cell with in Selma, Alabama, had earlier faked and plagiarized most of the dissertation that gained him the title of “Doctor.” And further, that this dauntless crusader against the public immorality of American racism & militarism had a private sexual morality that departed widely from his professed Christian values.
Many other names could be added here. And for some of them, the failings disclosed have indeed been disqualifying for membership in my personal pantheon. But for some others –and Dr. King tops this list– the sins complicate but do not negate the achievements and sacrifices.
Yes, Dr. King was definitely a sinner, but when he took that bullet in Memphis, he had NOT turned into a fraud or a sellout. He remains a hero for me, a complex one. Nothing I’ve yet learned has overturned that verdict.
BTW if you want more about this judgment, here are my two books that pursue it: Selma 1965: The March That Changed The South
Similarly high on my list, even tho he is entirely fictional, is Atticus Finch, and he’s been there for fifty years. Will the sins to be revealed in the pages of Go Set A Watchman prove fatal to my regard for him?
Well, let me read it and get back to you.
But even before cracking open the book, I have to admit — when it comes to Atticus Finch, I have prejudices too.
[ P.S. I did read the book. My review is here. ]