More than a few have told me to let go of the subjects of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. The books are published. It’s history now. Atticus Finch is a fictional character. And who cares? I care because this involves an artist and her art, her intellectual property, her masterpiece.
So, how did Atticus Finch go off the rails, go from being a man of integrity to just another flawed human being, propped up and then smacked down? Only one person knows for sure, and she is almost ninety and living in a nursing home in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
As for Atticus Finch, here’s the most likely explanation for his metamorphosis from hero to bigot.
Authors’ characters often undergo change, sometimes radical change, based on how a story develops, editor input, scenes where a character is judged to be unrealistic or inconsistent, or the plain old quest for drama and reader interest. Jay Gatsby is said to have undergone big changes, as did some of Dickens characters (Great Expectations comes to mind); more common than rare.
So what? I love a good mystery, so let’s start by stipulating that Harper Lee composed the bones of Go Set a Watchman before To Kill A Mockingbird. What if the character of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman was closely based on Harper Lee’s father, A. C. Lee, but as Watchman evolved into Mockingbird, with Lee’s editor’s encouragement, the Atticus Finch character diverged from her father and became the Atticus Finch we read about in Mockingbird, and see in the film, less A. C. Lee and more an invented character, though still retaining the author’s memory of A. C. Lee’s noble core? Partly in emulation of Harper Lee, this is exactly what happened with T. A. Cole in my novel, Terrapin, with Cole having qualities my father had, along with inventions that made him different than my dad. Cole started out closer to my father, but in the published novel invention was more prominent.
If this is what happened—based on subsequent events, I think it did—then once Mockingbird was published, how could Harper Lee publish Watchman, knowing, as she did, that Watchman’s Atticus Finch isn’t the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird? She couldn’t publish Watchman without radically changing how Atticus Finch reacts to matters of justice and civil rights, a foundational theme in Mockingbird.
Some argue the pre-civil rights biases of Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch are inherent in the patriarchal (their word) Finch, except that they aren’t. Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch puts his life on the line protecting Tom Robinson at the jail, goes to Tom’s home in a proscribed part of town, allows his own children to attend Calpurnia’s church services, puts his reputation on the line with his aggressive (way over the top for those times) questioning of Mayella Violet Ewell in court. These aren’t the actions of a closet bigot that’s motivated by an abstract sense of justice; not the man who becomes the Atticus Finch of Watchman.
Atticus Finch started out as A. C. Lee and became a different man as Mockingbird was conceived and published. That’s why Harper Lee never published Go Set a Watchman, not for over fifty years, not while her sister and best friend was alive, not until she was all alone with new voices in her old ears.
Decide for yourself, but don’t ignore the last fifty years and the facts.
(Note: read a previous piece by T.M. Doran, “Why the ‘Watchman’ doesn’t add up”, in the Detroit Free Press here.)