In ‘Watchman,’ the Atticus Finch myth takes a beating

Cover of "Go Set a Watchman" released by HarperCollins.

Atticus Finch, the lawyer at the heart of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has been, for more than half a century, the embodiment of American virtue. The character was vividly brought to life in 1962 by Gregory Peck in a performance that won Peck the Academy Award for best actor. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest hero ever in American film.

That was before publication last month of Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” the manuscript originally submitted by Lee in the mid-1950’s and subsequently reworked and rewritten into “Mockingbird.”

Unlike the crusading lawyer of “Mockingbird,” the Atticus of “Watchman” is an aged and close-minded white supremacist.

The Atticus Finch of “Watchman” would make no list of American heroes. He is, in fact, revealed as far less than the myth fashioned for him by Lee’s prose and Peck’s interpretation. At the same time, the story of his once-idyllic relationship with his daughter — Jean Louise “Scout” Finch — now more closely functions as a metaphor for race relations in 21st Century America.

When, this past February, HarperCollins announced the publication of “Go Set a Watchman,” the book was hailed as a “newly discovered novel” by the author of the classic “Mockingbird.”

In truth, there was nothing “new” about “Watchman.” Written in the 1950s, it was the manuscript that the young Lee originally sent to publishers J.B. Lippincott. The book related the relationship between 26-year-old Jean Louise and her aging father, Atticus, set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.

In that manuscript, Lippincott editor Tay Hohoff saw the foundation of an even worthier story buried in the bond between Jean Louise and her father. Under Hohoff’s guidance, “The New York Times” reported, Lee reworked the story that became “Mockingbird.” Over the years, while “Mockingbird” became first a literary sensation and then an Oscar-winning film, the original manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman” faded and was presumed lost—that is, until 2014, when Lee’s lawyer unearthed it from a safety deposit box. HarperCollins picked it up for publication, causing a sensation in the world of literature. Given that Lee never wrote another novel, few books in history have been so anticipated as “Watchman.”

But once details of the story began to leak, however, the myth of Atticus Finch unraveled. Unlike the crusading lawyer of “Mockingbird,” the Atticus of “Watchman” is an aged and close-minded white supremacist.

“Watchman” was not well received after publication. In terms of literary quality, “New Yorker” critic Adam Gopnik called it a “failure as a novel,” a book that would not have been published had “Mockingbird” not existed. “Telegraph” critic Gaby Wood offered condolences to the parents of the “thousands of boys born since 1960” named for Atticus Finch. One independent bookshop—Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Mich.—even offered refunds to disappointed buyers of the novel, whose views on the “beloved American classic” of “Mockingbird” had been “tainted,” as the store’s management posted on its website.

Jean Louise is no longer six-year-old “Scout” of the first novel but an independent career woman based in New York City.

Yet while “Watchman” may lack the literary grace and idyllic Southern charm of “Mockingbird,” its publication is timely, as are its themes of disillusionment and unrest over  ongoing racial bigotry at home. “Watchman” is a civil-rights story that speaks to the current American political climate as much as it does to that of its own time.

In the past year, the nation’s political landscape has been roiled by civil unrest as ugly in its revealed injustices as it is empowering in its demands for justice. Illusions of the “post-racial” Age of Obama were shattered, replaced by ugly truths to which Americans demand action and change. This week, for instance, marks the one-year anniversary of the violence and protest in Ferguson, Missouri, which revived issues of racially-motivated police brutality first broadcast to the nation in the 1960s,  at the time of “Mockingbird.” The one-year anniversary sparked a new round of protests in Ferguson.

Earlier this summer, the tragic June 17 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was followed, a month later, by the removal of the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina Capitol. That flag had flown over the Capitol since a vote of the state’s all-white Legislature in 1962, right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. “Watchman” made its debut on July 14, only a few days after the flag came down in Charleston.

It is, after all, the first attempt at a novel by a young writer, and readers must take it as such.

In “Watchman,” set two decades after “Mockingbird,” Jean Louise is no longer six-year-old “Scout” of the first novel but an independent career woman based in New York City who comes home to Maycomb. There, she comes face-to-face with the extreme racial bigotry brought to the surface in the white community’s reaction to the civil-rights movement. The disillusionment she feels for her hometown is concentrated on Atticus, who has transformed from the heroic civil rights lawyer into an arthritic ex-Ku Klux Klan member. To Jean Louise’s astonishment and disgust, he attends all-white “citizens’ council” meetings on how “God made the races,” and keeps a “Black Plague” pamphlet by his living room armchair.

Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em? … Zeebo’d probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered, you know.

—Atticus Finch in “Watchman”

In this new Atticus Finch lives an historically racist, all-white attitude that disheartened Americans, especially the young, demand be changed. Jean Louise, who faces the trauma and anger resulting from her disillusionment at the “blight that had come down over the people she loved,” personifies those who call for justice. As she tells Atticus:

…I heard something once. I heard a slogan and it stuck in my head. I heard “Equal rights for all; special privileges for none,” and to me it didn’t mean anything but what it said.

—Jean Louise Finch in “Watchman”

In this context, common criticisms of “Watchman” do not devalue the book as a worthy read. While the quality of writing in “Watchman” may not compare with “Mockingbird,” it is, after all, the first attempt at a novel by a young writer, and readers must take it as such. And while the gallant Gregory Peck version of Atticus is forever compromised, readers should not turn a blind eye to the ugly truths he now represents but rather acknowledge them so there can be a moving forward.

No doubt “Watchman” changes forever the way readers think of “Mockingbird”—yet in this new novel Lee is an American Sybil, not quite gracefully yet prophetically writing the civil rights story that America needs today as much as ever.

Ed’s Note: Janine Sobers is a reporter with Capitol News, a project of the University of California Center Public-Affairs Journalism Program.

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