Atticus Finch is Dead. Long Live Atticus Finch.

I’m tempted to think that Harper Lee kept her silence all these years because she knew a deeper truth: Atticus Finch was a racist before he was a saint, and Scout never really came of age. Ms. Lee, it turns out, grew wealthy off the wages of this nation’s original sin, selling easy virtue to a nation of sinners.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was published by J.B. Lippincott in 1960. It’s an iconic sort of work, a book you can hear late-middle-age folks describe as the reason they became a lawyer. It has sold millions of copies and is used in schools nationwide.

Scout recounts her childhood in a single-family household headed by her lawyer-father, Atticus Finch, in Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus is kind, patient, gentle, loving and unerringly just. When he defends a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape, Scout sits secretly in the courtroom gallery, in the space a segregated South reserved for blacks. An innocent man is convicted because of hatred. Her father is a lonely voice of courage, doing the right thing, for the right reasons, and enduring the wrong result stoically. 

Candidly, I’ve only recently read “Mockingbird.” Attempts to do so in years past met with failure. The characters in the book are almost parodies. Atticus is too good. Scout is too innocent. Even the Finches’ black cook, Calpurnia, seems to have jumped off the label of a flour advertisement. Atticus explains to Scout that he tries to love everyone. He is the social gospel made flesh, grape juice offered in lieu of communion wine.

When I learned Atticus had a secret past, however, I tackled “Mockingbird.” Then I read the first draft of the novel, published this summer under the title “Go Set A Watchman.”

Ms. Lee sent “Watchman” to her publisher in 1957. An editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, sent it back for a rewrite. The new book became “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is no sequel. “Watchman” is told from the perspective of a 20-something adult; “Mockingbird” is a child’s vision.

In “Watchman,” Atticus is not quite so pure. The NAACP is cast as a villain; Atticus fusses about the changes black folk will force on his comfortable world. Atticus’ sister, Alexandra, once utters to Scout: “Keeping a nigger happy these days is like catering to a king ---.”

The new Atticus is so raw that some folks now regret naming their children after him. Indeed, I asked a friend at breakfast the other day whether she planned to read “Watchman.”

“No,” she replied. “I prefer my old Atticus.” She likes her good and evil easily distinguished, she said.

I sometimes wonder whether there are any accidents in history. Things seem to happen for reasons, or, at the very least, we make necessity out of chance. My sense is that “Watchman” was published at just the right time, a time in which we are still, sinners all, in need of a candid discussion about race.

“Watchman,” after all, was published the same month South Carolina finally decided to stop flying the Confederate flag outside its state capital, a decision prompted by the murder of nine black worshippers in a church. The color line is still a lit fuse.

In truth, Atticus Finch was never really all that good. He enjoyed his white privilege, and worried what would happen when he lost it.

“Don’t fool yourselves,” he tells Scout and her brother, Jem, in “Mockingbird,” “it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in you children’s time.”

This line was not edited out of the saintly version of Atticus, the one in which all men are equal, and good intentions are all that matter.

In “Watchman,” Ms. Lee offers a darker version of Atticus’s fear.

“We’re outnumbered, you know” Atticus's brother, Jack tells Scout, as they discuss Atticus. “I hope to God it will be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time.” It could just as well have been Atticus speaking.

Atticus is afraid in both versions. In the earlier text, he resorts to self-defense, joining, and leading, white Citizen’s Councils, as a means of trying to stave off the deluge to come. Why, he’d even been a member of the Ku Klux Klan for a time.

In “Mockingbird,” Finch becomes the avatar of the politically correct. 

Ms. Lee, and, frankly, the reading republic, owe a debt of gratitude to the fussy editor, Tay Hohoff. Had “Watchman” been published first, few would ever have heard of Harper Lee, and fewer still, would remember Atticus Finch.

“Watchman” ends unsatisfactorily. Scout confronts her father’s racism with outrage, and then is slapped to her senses by a crabby uncle. She comes too easily to terms with Atticus. That’s just daddy, she seems to say, all the while asserting without self-consciousness or any sense of irony that she is “color blind.” Scout is neither lovable nor convincing.

Nowhere in “Mockingbird” is there a nuanced discussion of attitudes about race. Everyone is either a sinner or a saint. It’s all that was wrong with high school civics courses.

No so in “Watchman,” where Scout struggles, and fails, to come to terms with the color line. She gazes across the line at her father as though he were a stranger to her. Although now an adult, she is still a child. She is still unable to conceive of sin.

What I love about the publication of “Watchman” is the moral reckoning it will force on honest readers. “Oh, Atticus, how I love your purity” must now be replaced with a sense of something like dread: “Atticus, how could you?”

And that is the point about referring to slavery as this nation’s original sin. A nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal while simultaneously enslaving people of color has more than a little explaining to do. The City on Hill we boast about was built on a landfill.

Atticus has suddenly become robust, acquired a pulse, and is in need of grace. He found none in “Watchman.” Neither, yet, have we.

Atticus Finch is dead. Long live Atticus Finch.

Also listed under: Journal Register Columns


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