|The popular icon of Atticus Finch let us believe that the
politics of our world were simple, and that there were
pure heroes, pure villains, and pure victims. But Harper
Lee always knew, from the original vision of her story,
that Atticus was a person, more complex and paradoxical
than an icon could ever be.
This is a post about Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Go Set a Watchman. I have read neither of these books. I saw the Gregory Peck film of Mockingbird when I was about 14 years old. Other than that, I know the story of the book that was published first, and I know the most controversial points of the book that was published today.
I was concerned about the release of Go Set a Watchman from the first time I heard rumours of Harper Lee's declining faculties, and the signs that its publication was either something she disagreed with, or an act into which she was manipulated. As terrible as I consider that circumstance to be, if the worst possible scenario is true, that concern isn’t what I want to talk about.
Instead, I want to talk about something weird and fascinating, how Go Set a Watchman has become a performance art piece on a social scale, as well as being a flawed first novel released years after it was first written.
Start at the beginning. Harper Lee was a promising young novelist developing a book whose narrative was set in a fictionalized version of her hometown. So far, so Faulkner. Her editors spotted a more promising story woven into the flashbacks, the tale of a small girl watching her father defend a black man unjustly accused of rape.
That narrative reveals the terrifying racism of so much of her community, and showcased the upright, idealistic nature of her father. In the early years of the civil rights movement that Martin Luther King led, this narrative touched most closely the culture of the time.
On release, Mockingbird became a vessel in which an entire country's progressive edge saw its ideals. Atticus Finch became a standard-bearer of America’s (and the wider Western world's) ideals of justice, just as he was for his daughter in the book’s fictional narrative.
The horror of Jean Louise Finch discovering that, despite his idealistic commitment to fairness in the court system, Atticus was actually a bigoted segregationist is now horror on a social, national, global scale. The trauma of Jean Louise’s discovery is also the national trauma that this horrible truth lay under a national icon of justice and progress the entire time.
I have something of an outsider's perspective on this because I was never much of a fan of the Mockingbird storyline. It never inspired me because I always found it naive. Atticus Finch, the country lawyer who risked everything for justice in the face of institutionalized and omnipresent violent racism, seemed less a character than an icon. At best, he was an ideal no more complex as a character than “brave and bold Achilles." At worst, he was an After-School Special trope.
I can understand how, in the more idealistic days of the 1960s, the icon of Atticus could have touched many people as a sign that a better world was possible and we could achieve it. Now, I see only the naiveté of fools who think that racism exists only in the foaming mouths of a lynch mob, and not the micro-aggressions of everyday prejudice; that a pure and impartial justice system could only perpetrate injustice through the corruption of twisted, snarling individual villains.
The shock of readers to Go Set a Watchman is the shock of an ideal becoming real. It’s the shock of admitting that a man who'd defend someone against a racially motivated unjust criminal charge would also believe in the rightness of racially discriminatory institutions. The shock of admitting that your icon was always a person.
All of America is now Jean Louise, admitting that the ideals of her youth and the icons that inspired her were never themselves adequate to those ideals. We scream betrayal when we really fooled ourselves.
• • •
You might wonder why, since I haven't talked about my own projects or process at all, why I called this a Composing post. That’s because it expresses an idea about the power of literature and art that drives my own work. Art can directly, materially change the world, and this is a power that shouldn’t be taken lightly, even as it’s so hard to control.
I can understand why Harper Lee chose never to write fiction again after Mockingbird became so successful in the way that it did, becoming a beacon of ethical and political inspiration. Her words, and her character of Atticus, inspired a generation to pursue their ideals.
But until now, she was the only one who knew that idealized character to have been incomplete at best and a lie at worst. Her words could move a country, but articulating her actual vision would have betrayed the faith of her nation. Who could overcome that weight to write again?