The only thing more shocking than the fact that Harper Lee has a second novel coming out is the recent revelation about it from the Associated Press.
The AP obtained an early copy of Go Set a Watchman, which features the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some 20 years later. The AP states that in this new novel Atticus Finch, the beloved lawyer/father, is a racist who supports segregation. Indeed, calling it shocking is an understatement.
Responses on social media range from one Twitter user stating that: “The idea of #atticusfinch being racist is like Spielberg doing a sequel in which ET punches Eliot in the face and steals his lunch money” to another saying that their “entire childhood is a lie.”
Some are even saying they won’t read the book because of that while at least one person I know said that the “two [novels] should probably be read totally independently and, if possible, not thought of as the same characters at all.” (There is also controversy if the book should have even been published.
There are claims that the 89 year old Ms. Lee suffers from dementia and had no idea what she was consenting to when she agreed to have the book published. Both Ms. Lee and her publishers deny this and a rep for Harper Collins says that, “[She] wanted to have the novel published exactly as it was written, without editorial intervention.” They go on to say, “The question of Atticus’s racism is one of the most important and critical elements in this novel and it should be considered in the context of the book’s broader moral themes.”
I tend to believe this.
In fact, the revelation of Atticus’s racism actually convinced me to order the book because, as I explained to some incredulous friends, it’s possible that this “new” Atticus comes across as far more realistic than the saintly lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. In my eyes, it is entirely possible for these two Atticuses to co-exist and be the same person—the lawyer who tried his hardest to defend a black man falsely accused of rape and was appalled by his conviction and the elderly man in favor of segregation, because I have seen people like this in my own life and family.
As I have previously discussed, my late grandmother who was born in 1916 and who absolutely adored me, was a racist. It was not a secret either to myself or anyone who knew her. However, she didn’t view herself as one because in her words, she didn’t hate anyone. She also wasn’t the sort of racist that most people my age and younger envision. The racist views she expressed were not out of hate, but ignorance and her mistaken conviction that whites were superior to all other groups of people including blacks, Asians and everyone else. Black people, she claimed, were unable to ever become the true equals of their white counterparts.
She was not alone in this condescending, narrow-minded view.
Many in her generation thought the same. While she was appalled by the idea of someone being hurt or killed because of their race, she strongly felt that “things were better back in the days when everyone knew their place.” In her eyes, it was better when the blacks she knew worked mainly as domestic help and were subservient to whites. She didn’t have a problem with some blacks becoming professionals as long as they stuck “with their own.”
Mixed relationships were an anathema to her. Until the day she died, she never forgave my mother for marrying my Chinese father.
However, despite all this, I never doubted her love for me. I also never doubted her sincere love for the big screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird or the disgust she expressed each time she viewed the scene where Tom Robinson was found guilty of a crime he did not commit.
Politically, she, like George Wallace started out as a political progressive. Unlike him, though, she never stopped being one and never apologized for her support of segregation. (Wallace famously apologized for his segregationist views later in life.)
Therefore, when I first read about the portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Set a Watchman, it didn’t shock me that much.
The best characters are those that are most like real people. People are complex. They are the products of the times and the environments they grow up in. It’s unrealistic to expect people who were born a century ago to hold the same views that people in the 21st century hold.
Documentary filmmaker Mary Murphy who recently spent some time with Harper Lee points out that, “Alabama was a state that would have rather closed its public schools than integrate them. This is the climate in which this book appears. And a truly liberated white Southern man wasn’t something you’d find in these small towns, or across the state. So, Atticus, in the book, reflects—sort of—the time, and reflects the culture of the time.”
It’s very true. As someone who knew people from these past generations—some of whom were literally my people—I couldn’t agree more. Assuming that the book is set in 1957 (the year Lee completed it) and Atticus is 72 at the time, that would mean he was born around 1885. He’d be old enough to be my grandmother’s father.
It’s also worth noting that Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper Lee’s father and the man whom she based Atticus on, was a segregationist who nonetheless held views on race that were seen as liberal for a man of his time and place. He eventually did reverse his views latter in life.
Perhaps Atticus is indeed more like Amasa than most To Kill a Mockingbird fans realize.
Plus, another thing that the critics seem to be missing is the role that Scout/Jean Louise plays in all this. In the former, Scout is a child. She clearly idolizes her father and sees him as hero. In Watchman, she is a woman in her 20s. Usually nearly all of us by then come to realize that much like the world, most people do not fall neatly into the category of hero or villain.
Therefore, when the book comes out this week, I will be reading my copy. While it may not be the classic of it’s predecessor, it will probably still be interesting and dare I say even more relevant in these current times.
Author: Kimberly Lo
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Beau Considine