Friday, July 17, 2015

Losing Atticus

I need to make a decision about Atticus Finch. Or, rather, about whether I will read Harper Lee's new book, Go Set a Watchman (2015).


As you probably know by now, this new book is the book that Lee wrote first, although this is a bit "murky" as one reviewer said. It is a newly discovered book and/or the book that  Lee, guided by her editor, wrote and revised and eventually turned into another book entirely. The book that we thought was her first and only book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a coming-of-age story about a young girl named "Scout" (Jean Louise), her brother, Jem, and their father Atticus, a lawyer, in a sleepy Southern town. In Watchman, Lee's original concept, a grown up Jean Louise has come home from New York City to visit her father. During her visit, she is heartbroken and disillusioned when she discovers, Atticus, her childhood hero, has feet of clay. According to reviewers and early readers, those of us who love the Atticus of Mockingbird will share Jean Louise's pain. Atticus Finch, iconic defender of justice, kind, compassionate, a moral compass for his children and for us and for all of those lawyers and law students who were inspired by him – our Atticus – has been destroyed. He is not a hero, he is only a man of his time and place. A better man than some perhaps, but not the man we always believed him to be. He is a bigot and a segregationist.

I have not read Watchman. I am only repeating what I have read about the book. I feel that I should read it because To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the books that has shaped my worldview.


As a criminal justice professor, I have used Mockingbird often in my classes. Mockingbird is the one book that I can be sure the majority of my undergrad students will have read. I have assigned the book for discussion during my class on Violence in American Literature. I have shown clips from the movie when discussing images of lawyers in popular culture in my Crime and Mass Media course. In my graduate Race and Crime class, I refer to Mockingbird when I discuss the Scottsboro Boys case. That was a sensational 1931 (Depression-era) case in which nine black teenagers were accused by two white women of rape. All of them were found aboard a slow-moving freight train that stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama. I have shown the movie clip of Atticus Finch's cross-examination of Mayella Ewell, the alleged rape victim in Mockingbird, when discussing the cross-examination of Victoria Price, one of the accusers in the real-life Depression-era case. The Scottsboro Boys case is said to have influenced Harper Lee's Mockingbird.

A few years ago, I took part in a “Big Read” of To Kill a Mockingbird. Librarian patrons and school children were encouraged to read the book and take part in discussions and other events. I was a panelist for a discussion recorded by local public television before a live audience. During the discussion, we panelists talked about various aspects of Lee's classic– the time, the setting, the characters. I mentioned that I had read an article that challenged Atticus Finch’s cross-examination of Mayella Ewell. The author of the article argued that the defense attorney had subjected Mayella to that “second victimization” that women experience when they are cross-examined in a courtroom during rape trials. The audience attending the panel discussion was incredulous. How could anyone accuse gentle, compassionate Atticus of subjecting Mayella to psychological harm? He believed she was lying. It was his duty to his client to try to get his accuser to admit the truth. He had been courteous to her even as she raged first at him and then at the members of the jury.

Lee's Watchman presents a different Atticus. There are reasons why I should read Watchman. I am a teacher, and I should know about this book so that I can discuss it with my students. One of my areas of specialization as a criminal justice scholar is crime and mass media/popular culture. I am listed as a “university expert” in this area. I could receive a call from the media about this book. I should also read it because Atticus Finch inspired a character in one of my own novels. The third book in my Lizzie Stuart series, Old Murders, takes the real-life early 20th century execution of a young black woman for murder as its starting point. I move the case forward in time and change the facts. In my novel, my crime historian protagonist is approached by the white lawyer who defended the teenager. He is still haunted by the case and wants Lizzie to help him write his memoir. I portray this old lawyer as “an Atticus Finch gone to seed”.

I should read Lee’s Watchman because I am a Southerner. I am an African American from Virginia, who grew up as segregation was unraveling. I might well find Watchman thought-provoking. It might become a text that I can refer to in my classes when discussing the response of the South to Brown v. Board of Education.

I should read this book because Harper Lee, as a writer, has the right to portray her characters as she will. She has no obligation to me to honor my illusions. I should read this book as a reminder that heroes fall from grace. But I'm not sure I will read it. At least not for a while. I need first to mourn losing Atticus – or rather the Atticus of Lee’s book. I will always have the Atticus that I see in my mind. That Atticus is the man that Gregory Peck brings to life in the film. That Atticus will survive . . . but perhaps only as a brilliant actor giving the performance of a lifetime. If I look too closely at even Peck’s Atticus, I am forced to consider him as a one of the “white knights” of books and films who are the heroes of stories that focus on them rather than the black men and women who are in jeopardy.

But To Kill a Mockingbird is Scout's story. We see Atticus through her eyes. Perhaps it is Scout – now Jean Louise – that I should focus on. Perhaps that was what Lee intended in both books.

Have you read Watchman? Thoughts about the book?

5 comments:

Vicki Delany said...

I don't think I will read it. Mainly because it sounds as though it wasn't a book Harper Lee wanted published. She rewrote her first draft to make Atticus a kind man. That was her vision of him.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

From the reviews, it sounds like he may still be kind in this book. But he also is man who can rationalize segregation and the racial status quo. As I said, I'm going to wait for a while.

Donis Casey said...

I don't know if I will read it or not, mostly because of what Vicki says. I would be sad to lose Atticus, but I've long thought that no one is without some really unsavory flaws. If you ever do read it, Frankie, I'd be interested to hear your opinion.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Will do. I'll probably want to talk about it.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

This is an amazing post, Frankie.

Will be interested to hear what you think of the book.

I'm torn about reading it.