If Atticus Finch is Racist Then…

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To be honest, I’m not really sure where to start this post.  Well, as almost everyone in the literary world knows by now, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the famed so-called sequel to her Great American Novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, will be released on Tuesday.  When I first heard of this discovered treasure, I greatly anticipated bending back the pages with my fingertips, taking in every word and syllable of my favorite writer, rejoined with my favorite characters, who, through the years, have become family.  Now I’m not so sure…

On Friday morning I received a text from my father that the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman had been released in The Wall Street Journal.  Spoiler alert!!! This is not the To Kill a Mockingbird that we read when we were younger.  Scout is worldly and sassy.  And what about Jem? Well, poor Jem is killed off in what appears like less than a sentence, just that he had dropped dead one day.

Now, early reviews of the book are saying that Atticus, our beloved civil rights leading Atticus…is racist?!? All day I’ve been thinking about this and I haven’t been able to scratch below the surface of the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird was, is and will always be, a work of fiction.  But for those of us like myself, who read the book cover to cover many times over and fell asleep on fall nights, the leaves falling outside our windows as they did in Maycomb, we’re dumbstruck.

Let me make this clear: I grew up on this novel and it’s characters and they have forever bore a humanity and a code of ethics I don’t even think I received from some of my family members and elders.  Atticus Finch was good, a person of quality and character and I have always yearned to be just like him.  So how then, could this man be racist.

Well, as a writer, I believe that whatever intention poor Nelle Harper Lee had in writing Go Set a Watchman, she achieved by writing To Kill a Mockingbird.  Maybe, just maybe her intention was to write a story about the wrongs of racism, first achieved by a young woman coming into her own seeing the ways of her older father and later as a child growing up with an idealistic father in a world of fear and truth.  I prefer the latter, but both accomplish the same thing.

As a writer, not of the magnitude of Harper Lee obviously, but I still like to think I can weave a good story, I’ve had many conversations with my publisher over the need to change drastic parts of a novel or rethink it completely for the achievement of the intention.  I’m not talking about authors like James Patterson or Danielle Steele, who also have their place in their own right, but truly writers of intention.

Writing is a form of art, but sometimes you have to stand back and think to yourself, “Is this the message I really want to send?”

Sometimes yes and sometimes a resounding no.  So you trash the canvas or stuff the manuscript in the back of a box, only to be found years later as the presumed bestselling sequel.  And the fact that the novel is even being published or was even found is so profound is a modern miracle of it’s own.

I already pre-ordered my copy of Go Set a Watchman and I’ve decided I’ll devour it the way I devoured To Kill a Mockingbird so many years ago when my mother first read it to me as a child, when I didn’t understand racism or rape, but loved the spooky tales of Boo Radley, now my dog’s name.

Atticus Finch will forever be a hero to me, because it is not in the words printed on paper that I found his humanity but in the fact that a man like Atticus could ever exist.  And if it can be imagined, then it can truly happen.  I like to think there are thousands of Atticus’ out there.  My father is one.  Men of character and ethical boundaries so true that they only waver in the most incredulous of human situations.

As for Harper Lee, well, I think she was warning us when she titled this book Go Set a Watchman” For thus has the LORD said to me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees.”  As the watchman, she’s always known, and now we know that the truth is she never really wanted this book to come out and be published.  She was protecting us, because after all, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Harper Lee has always been the truest Atticus there ever was…

Much love,

Peter

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