Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Mockingbird” Gives Us the Real Atticus Finch

The past several days, the internet has been abuzz with the story that Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set A Watchman, portrays Atticus Finch as a racist. This is the same man she portrayed as a noble hero in To Kill A Mockingbird, which is set twenty years before Watchman. So how could the moral hero of that book have gone down such a dark path later in life? There’s one simple answer: he never did.

To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the greatest novels of all time, and remains one of my favorite books. But it’s never had a sequel, and still doesn’t in my view, despite today’s publication of Go Set A Watchman (which is about an adult Scout returning to her hometown). 

By all accounts, Lee wrote Watchman in the mid-1950s. Her editor at the time, however, didn’t want to publish it. Instead, he asked her to write a new novel based on the main character’s childhood. That is the story that became To Kill A Mockingbird, while Watchman was shelved for a half-century. 

As every writer knows, a story changes as it is written, often metamorphosing into something very different than what the author originally envisioned. And the same is true for a story’s characters. In my own novel, there are characters who existed in early drafts that never even appear in the published book. My main character went through three name changes, had his origin story rewritten twice, and was sired by three different fathers, depending on the day. My antagonist was no different. He changed names, jobs, and mannerisms throughout my writing journey. I doubt the antagonist from my early drafts would even recognize the villain from the published novel. 

Given the changes that occur during the writing journey, it’s no surprise that a character who began as a racist in the author’s mind later evolved into a moral hero by the final draft. By the time Lee finished Mockingbird, Atticus Finch had completely transformed into the character so many readers admire today. Mockingbird’s Atticus never shared the poisonous views of Watchman’s Atticus because that Atticus disappeared somewhere along the way. He was lost in the writing journey that gave us Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch.

Because of the order in which the two books were written, Watchman was never intended to be a sequel that explains how Atticus Finch became a racist. That would be like J.K. Rowling writing a sequel where Harry Potter has become a religious fanatic who’s really into witch burning. The reality is that Mockingbird’s Atticus did not exist when Watchman was written. That noble Atticus had yet to be born in Lee’s mind. 

At least that’s the way I like to think of it. I don’t want to believe a hero like Mockingbird’s Atticus could turn into the man apparently portrayed in Watchman. I’d rather believe that Watchman is some alternate reality where Mockingbird’s Atticus never existed. Because that’s essentially what Harper Lee did. After she wrote Watchman, she created a whole new reality for the six-year-old Scout, one where her father, Atticus Finch, was a hero we could all believe in.

PS – Yesterday The Passive Voice posted an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal that suggests Lee’s father was the model for Atticus Finch. Apparently, he was a segregationist who changed his views while Lee was writing Mockingbird. That may help explain how Watchman’s Atticus transformed into Mockingbird’s Atticus during her writing journey. Here’s a link.


Bill said...

That being the timeline in which the two books were written, your point makes perfect sense.

Paul Daniel Asuncion said...


I'm trying to write a screenplay, SO,
yes, I can understand how a story can

Maybe Harper Lee is unaware of the
controversy, now. But, maybe she was
very AWARE of how complex people are.
2 centuries ago, a slave owner would,
sometimes, fall in love with one of his
own slaves, and, at the same time,
despise himself for doing so...

Then FATHER a child with that slave,
and LOVE that child as much as any
other WHITE children he might have.

In Harper Lee's mind, maybe ATTICUS
always was a bigot, BUT - one who
believed in one of the legal profession's

That every man [or woman] DESERVES a
fair trial...


Joseph Finley said...

Dan, thanks for the comment. Who knows what Harper Lee was really thinking when it came to Atticus Finch, but, if nothing else, "Watchman" gives us some insight into that.