Thursday, August 20, 2015

Regarding the demotion of Saint Atticus

A couple of weeks ago I finished up a Harper Lee double-header, starting with a reread of her classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird", followed immediately with a reading of its newly-published sequel, "Go Set a Watchman". Before I began reading the sequel, I set out to studiously avoid exposing myself to any of the myriad of opinion pieces that sprang up just after its publication.

It was obvious from the headlines, though, that some folks were aghast at the prospect of Atticus Finch being presented as a "racist" in the newly published book. "Aghast" may be too weak a word: these people seemed REALLY pissed off! Despite my intentions to avoid them, I confess that some of the click-bait headlines lured me in to skim over the text of a few of the angrier jeremiads. (I figured that the biggest plot twist had already been spoiled for me, and I wondered what everybody was so worked up over.) Those that I skimmed did not seem to be expressing anger at Harper Lee herself; instead their ire was directed at Lee's relatives and publishers, as if they had somehow betrayed her (and all the rest of us) by conspiring to make this work public. One op-ed piece that I read, in the New York Times, seemed to go so far as to suggest that "Go Set a Watchman" was actually written BEFORE "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- that "Watchman" was some kind of shoddy first draft that a sagacious editor encouraged Lee to rework into the modern-day classic that we all know and love.

Well, now that I've read the work, I can unequivocally say that "Go Set a Watchman" could NOT have been written before "To Kill a Mockingbird". Major parts of "Watchman" simply make no sense unless they are PRECEDED by the character development (and the crucial first-person impressions of the young narrator, Scout) in "Mockingbird". But what is much more important to me than debunking conspiracy theories is to get to the question of why there would be such a vitriolic reaction to "Go Set a Watchman", which does indeed present, as its central dilemma, how Scout (now mostly called by her grown-up name of "Jean Louise") deals with the realization that her father is NOT the paragon of absolute virtue she had always taken him for. So as I was reading "Go Set a Watchman", I had two overriding questions at the forefront of my mind: (1) Why did Harper Lee take the story of Scout and Atticus in this direction, and (2) why would people be SOOOO upset about this?

Here's my guess: at some point following the publication and brilliant success of her debut novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird", it occurred to Harper Lee (either via a slow dawning of awareness, or perhaps in some thunderclap of sudden, distraught realization) that her book, and in particular her central character of Atticus Finch (very effectively drilled into all of our noggins by Gregory Peck's iconic portrayal), rather than inspiring people to carry on and fight the great fight to broaden and deepen civil rights for all, instead gave a completely unintended solace to the wrong people, inadvertently inspiring a sense of complacency in the very people she intended to spur to action. Horror of horrors, rather than sounding the bugle and heading into battle, some of Lee's target audience of folks-who-wanna-do-right-by-other-folks instead identified so thoroughly with Saint Atticus, that icon of ultimate understanding and benevolence, that their internal monologues might have gone something like this: "I am just like Atticus Finch. I AM Atticus Finch. I have evolved beyond racism. Within me, the American Civil War (which carried on for far too long after Appomattox) has finally arrive at a brilliant and triumphant denouement. The Great Work is now done."

Is it possible that Harper Lee came to just such a realization, and almost simultaneously came to the realization that somehow "Saint Atticus" must die, and be replaced with just plain old Atticus Finch, a real and imperfect human being who's still got some very hard work to do to truly set things right?

I wonder whether much of the ruckus and consternation regarding the publication of "Go Set a Watchman" is actually due to how closely a lot of us (particularly those of the white, privileged persuasion) identify with Atticus. For me, I see the upsetting of the Atticus apple cart to make perfect literary (and Jungian) sense. It HAD to be that way, and Lee does quite a good job of leading Jean Louise (and us) to the realization of her father's true character, in a completely sensible way!! But others may see the dethroning of Atticus to be an unacceptable last straw, a fiction-based confirmation that the brutal, complacency-shattering true events of our times (from Ferguson, to the tragedy of Sandra Bland, and beyond) offer proof-too-positive that the Civil War that we had hoped was over, still rages on. And that's a very difficult thing to have to wake up to.

Atticus Finch, in "To Kill a Mockingbird", despises individual white racists, referring to them explicitly as "trash"; but that same Atticus Finch staunchly supports institutional racism in "Go Set a Watchman". This SO TOTALLY MAKES SENSE -- it is the only direction that Harper Lee could have reasonably taken the narrative, and it makes this pair of books, with their fuller realization of the story of Scout and Atticus, into a powerful allegory for the challenges of our time.