Where Have You Gone, Atticus Finch?

Atticus Finch is not a real person. I mention this as a public service announcement because in the past week, people have been losing their blessed minds in regard to Harper Lee’s recently published novel, Go Set a Watchman. In the book, Atticus Finch is depicted as being a segregationist in 1950s Alabama. This is a very different Atticus Finch from the one in Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird who believed in equal rights and stood up to oppression. As a result, a lot of people are appalled. The hipster’s angst is palpable.

“How can it be?” crieth the people. “How could the man who defended Tom Robinson be a segregationist?”

To which I would respond, “You realize he’s a fictional character, right?”

Atticus Finch, a fictional person, as portrayed by Gregory Peck, a real person
Atticus Finch, a fictional person, as portrayed by Gregory Peck, a real person

Let’s start off with this very important fact: Go Set a Watchman is not the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, Watchman was written by Ms. Lee before Mockingbird. When Ms. Lee submitted Watchman to her publisher in the late 1950s, it was the publisher who suggested Lee write a novel based on the flashback scenes in Watchman that focused on Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s childhood. It was from these notes that Mockingbird was born.

So, even though Mockingbird was published in 1960 and Watchman was published this year (2015) and the events of the Watchman occur after Mockingbird, the actual history of the writing of the novels is the reverse. As the Doctor might say, it’s all a little timey-wimey. The creation of Watchman Atticus FInch predates Mockingbird’s Finch (Aside from some light editing, no changes were made from the original Watchman manuscript). That seems to be where everyone is losing the thread.

Writing fiction means having the characters speak to you. Their purpose is to drive the narrative. As a result, a character’s motivations and personality will begin to change if the plot of the story changes. (Sometimes it is the other way round. But that’s a story for another day). The story of Watchman deals with Scout coming back to Alabama is the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Atticus is meant to represent, and thus tell the tale of, the reaction to the Court’s decision and accompanying social upheaval.

When Lee’s publisher, instead of publishing Watchman in 1957, asked her to write a story about Jean Louise’s childhood in the 1930s, the needs of the narrative changed. This new story was about life in Alabama during the Great Depression and pre-Brown. Mockingbird is the flashback sequences stitched together and apparently expanded from what was told in Watchman. Atticus Finch’s role in Mockingbird changed. As a result, his motivations and personality also altered as well. There is no need to reconcile the two versions of Atticus Finch because they are not the same person.

While it’s true that life may imitate fiction, sometimes life influences it as well. It is understood that Atticus Finch was modelled on Ms. Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, a local attorney. When Watchman was being written, A.C. Lee, was a segregationist and viscerally opposed to the federal government’s intervention in local matters, such as schooling. However, by the time Harper Lee had been encouraged by her publisher to write a story about young Scout,, A.C. Lee had had a change of heart and repudiated at least some of his prior racial beliefs and embraced desegregation. I don’t think it is difficult to see why Atticus Finch’s view seem to undergo a similar evolution. This is why Atticus Finch has such a place in American consciousness. His was the voice of reason and tolerance in the midst of the Civil Rights movement.

So, that’s that, right?


Maybe  it is possible that Atticus Finch of Watchman and Atticus Finch of Mockingbird are one in the same. Perhaps Atticus, while believing Tom Robinson was innocent and didn’t rape Mayella Ewell also believed in Separate But Equal. That is the view my father-in-law has regarding the two Finchs. In his opinion, “You could be a segregationist but not a racist.”

(That opinion is based, I have no doubt, on personal experience. My wife’s family are Trinidadian. Her parents have experienced not only American racism, but also British racism and colonialist attitudes. British racism, in keeping with the general concept of British-ness, tends to be more pernicious and subtle than the American form. In Bridget Bereton’s A History of Modern Trinidad,  she discuss the reaction of Trinidadians when the Americans arrived during World War II. Whereas the British would be racist but try to pretend otherwise, the American form of racism was open and obvious. But, because the American racism did not extend to paying workers, and there was no attempt to dissemble feelings on race, Americans were loved by the Trinidadians).

The Brown decision could have had an electric effect on the Atticus Finchs’ of the world. The striking down of Separate But Equal in education had the effect of turning their world upside down. Whereas before, everyone knew their place, the Supreme Court just stepped in and uprooted everything. In some sense,the Great Chain of Being had been sundered for Southern Whites. Thus, Atticus Finch’s segregationist views and his previous defense of Tom Robinson can be reconciled. While Atticus was prepared to recognize Robinson as a fellow being, deserving of respect, he was not prepared to have him sitting next to him at the diner or even dating his daughter. Because the thunderbolt impact of Brown was so great that he turns to organizations seeking to restore the old Order and that all races learned their place in the Great Chain.

A real world example of this viewpoint could be George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama. As a young lawyer, Wallace represented a number of minorities before the courts. He is even said to have compelled judges to accord blacks the same respect and courtesies given to whites. Despite this seemingly enlightened point of view, Wallace became one of the most ardent segregationists this country has ever seen.

I understand, on a certain level, why people are upset at this portrayal of the Atticus Finch. The Atticus FInch of To Kill a Mockingbird is the gold standard for lawyers.  He is what we as Americans want lawyers to be.(Atticus was why I went to law school). He is a mythological person.

The Atticus Finch of Watchman is not the gold standard. He’s not even the silver or bronze standard. This Atticus isn’t perfect and he is flawed. But paradoxically, it makes the fictional character more real. More human. This Atticus Finch is not a hero of myth, but a human being, subject to the same foibles as any other human being. He is, in fact, an imperfect being. And people don’t like seeing their myths being shattered.

The new old novel
The new old novel

Now, I don’t know if Atticus’ views in Watchman evolve from the beginning to end of the novel. The book just arrived the other day and I’m only part of the way through. So maybe Atticus Finch, like A.C. Lee, reconsiders his view and becomes closer to the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. But I do know that in the end, the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird will endure. As Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


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