I Haven’t Shot a Gun in Thirty Years… (Or Fifty-Five)

So if you live in a portion of the Internet that talks about books (and if you don’t, how on Earth did you find my blog?) then you probably know that GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee was released recently. The story is set in Scout’s future: everyone is older, the world is different, Scout (now Jean Louise) is trying to live an adult life. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet (I will, no worries) but I’ve seen article after article about one particular topic. It’s one dear to my heart. And if you follow me on Facebook, you know it’s something I’ve already spoken about.

So let’s talk about Atticus Finch.

I have long said that in the event that I have a son, his middle name will be Atticus. Atticus Finch is one of my all-time favorite characters in fiction, he was portrayed amazingly in the movie by Gregory Peck, and was the inspiration for one of my favorite video game character’s father. (Gregory Edgeworth? Lawyer? GO LOOK AT IT. IT’S PECK, ALRIGHT.) I am no small fan of Mr. Finch, nor of the book which introduced him to us. It’s a family favorite and I doubt that will ever change.

Now that WATCHMAN has come out, everyone is Up In Arms talking about how ATTICUS IS RUINED FOREVER. (Again, remember that I haven’t read this yet, and I’m basing all I know on what the articles have told me.) The book portrays him as segregationist if not outright racist, and thus Not At All the man we know from MOCKINGBIRD, who sits outside Tom Robinson’s cell to protect him from the townspeople, before defending him admirably in court. (Albeit ineffectively, though I have seen that it’s indicated in WATCHMAN that Atticus did actually get his acquittal.) “What happened?!” the readers cry. “Who is this character? What new fresh hell is this, that our beloved Atticus Finch is tossed in the dirt and made to be less than we know him to be? HOW CAN HE LIVE WITH HIMSELF?!”

Arright. Take a breath. Let’s look at this again. Two points I’d like to make:

1) People change. Perhaps the world in the days of Robinson’s trial were different to Atticus than the 30 years that have passed since then. (This would be even more true if Robinson was found guilty in WATCHMAN. I can absolutely see Atticus growing bitter about that, and thinking the fight futile and problematic.) Again, I don’t know what the circumstances are, I don’t know what he says and in what context, I don’t know enough to make a full stand here. But I know that the world is not (dare I say it) black and white. People are not one or the other. People are grey. We change our minds, we made bad choices. Smart people do stupid things. You can think a man should have a right to a fair trial just like the rest, but we hear nothing about the separation of the white people from the black people in the courthouse, nor the fact that Atticus has a black woman working for him. (Yes, Calpurnia is given wages and treated the same as he treats anyone else, as far as I can remember. But the fact remains.)


2) WATCHMAN is a first draft. As such, as I saw in an article I read and then posted on my Facebook, this is Atticus in pencil. Lee wrote this book years before she wrote MOCKINGBIRD, and as such, cannot be considered to be equal to it. Atticus Finch is based very strongly on Lee’s own father, A.C. Lee. At the time that WATCHMAN was first written, Mr. Lee was segregationist. Two years later, not so much. Thus, Atticus changes from book to book. WATCHMAN hadn’t been released, so what did it matter that the Atticuses didn’t match? Despite the fact that WATCHMAN takes place after MOCKINGBIRD, it is not a sequel. It’s a first draft.

Dear Lord, if all my characters were judged by their first draft selves, I don’t think anyone (including me) would like any of them.

For me, WATCHMAN has not changed a thing for me in regards to Atticus, and reading it won’t do anymore either. I’ve seen enough about Lee and her interactions with Gregory Peck to know the truth of Atticus. She thought so highly of Peck’s performance that she gave him her father’s pocket watch. She thought he was perfect–and why should we think differently? WATCHMAN is a first draft that it’s still very possible that Lee wasn’t entirely willing to publish in the first place.

It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Why are we insisting on pointing the gun at Atticus?

The Atticus Finch I love and respect lives on, and WATCHMAN will not change that. The first little Fray boy to enter the world someday will still have the middle name I wanted for him. And I will raise that child to know exactly who he is named for.

Our mockingbird Atticus. Always.


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