"He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being."
— Uncle Jack Finch in Go Set a Watchman
As a child, we have our heroes. Whether they are on the TV or movie screen or a bit closer to home, these deities are set apart from mortal men and women. For many, those heroes are our parents or other adults in our lives. We revel in their positive character traits and are blinded to their foibles. They can do little, if any, wrong.
As we age, the veneer wears off and the faults that were always there readily appear. Sometimes the flaws are minor and common to the lot of humanity. At other points, they are so significant that learning of them rocks us to our very core.
Such is the case with Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Many Americans were raised on Lee's first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been taught to teens for decades. I know it a bit better than most because I teach it every year in my freshman English classes. One of the key themes we highlight is the concept of Atticus Finch as ideal father. He always has sage advice, protects his children from harm and defends the rights of the oppressed against their oppressors.
Even when he knows he won't win a case that is clearly stacked against his African American defendant, Atticus still fights the good fight because that's what good people do. His daughter, Scout, remains proud of him even when Tom Robinson loses in court and eventually his own life. At times, Atticus Finch seems like a fabled knight on a one-man crusade.
Well, that myth in dashed in Watchman. It's 20 years later and Scout is no longer a child, having abandoned more than just her childhood nickname. Jean Louise smokes, has no problem kissing boys or cussing and has lived it up a bit in New York City. On a pilgrimage home to see her arthritic father in still mostly rural Macomb, Alabama, she learns things about him that shatter her perception of Atticus Finch, defender of the defenseless.
The storyline aside, there are some technical glitches in the meta-narrative that connects the two stories. Clearly the idea of the Tom Robinson case was firm in Lee's mind when she wrote Watchman, but there are differences between the cases in the two books that will set the teeth of loyal Mockingbird readers on edge. I'm not a big fan of the third person narration, but it's a modified third person, since we really see the world from her point of view. Also, there is some repetition that a good editor would have pruned away. It's like when your favorite TV show has a guest writer and she strays from the accepted canon of the series.
These issues aside, there's a reason her publishers told her to put Watchman aside and write a prequel. Mockingbird is a positive story of one man fighting against an unjust system. It has its complexities to be sure, but at its heart it is a fairy tale. Perhaps with the death and injustice it's more like a Grimm's Fairy Tale than a Disney fable, but morally muddled characters like Mayella Ewell and Walter Cunningham Sr. still pale in comparison to the virtuous Atticus Finch.
In Watchman, however, Atticus has feet of clay. The moral purity Scout saw in him is peeled away, layer by layer, until we see his view of African Americans is much less enlightened than we previously thought and he has little desire to promote immediate societal change. His approach flies in the face of Dr. King's comments at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."
What's brilliant in this book, and what it should be remembered for, is the climatic scene between Jean Loiuse and Atticus. This is where his beliefs are laid bare, and the woman who once idolized her father completely loses faith in him. It would be easy for this moment to be orchestrated solely by Jean Louise herself, but the reader is blown away when Uncle Jack reveals Atticus had arranged the firewood and kindling for his own destruction and all she needed to do was strike the match.
Jean Loiuse struggles, as do we, when we're forced to see Atticus as anything less than the perfect dad. "As she welcomed him to the human race, the stab of discovery made her tremble a little." Perhaps you were stung when you discovered your own father was just "a man with a man's heart and a man's failings…." Maybe you revered Atticus because the man who fathered you was bereft of the values and integrity imbued in this simple country lawyer.
In the end, no matter how much our view of Atticus Finch may have been tarnished, Lee offers us a message of hope. She asserts, in a much less grandiose fashion that we had previously believed, that Atticus is fighting for what sees as good. And, in this era of using technology as a weapon to assail those who hold opposing viewpoints, Lee suggests through the words of Uncle Jack that we should always offer the counsel of a friend rather than the venom of an enemy.
"[T]he time your friends need you is when they're wrong, Jean Louise. They don't need you when they're right."
That's something Atticus Finch, and the rest of us, should all stand for.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.