Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman: Evolution, Devolution, or Revelation

Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman: Evolution, Devolution, or Revelation
Some works should never have been. It could be argued that Go Set a Watchman is such a work. Controversy surrounded the 2015 release of this novel, and many different views on its quality have been passionately presented.  While the dubious circumstances of its release and the significant dip in quality in comparison to its predecessor have filled newsfeeds, what should not be overshadowed is the furor created over a new take on a beloved (idolized) character.  The theme of the coming of age of Jean Louise Finch that began in To Kill a Mockingbird is continued in Go Set a Watchman. Whereas To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the eyes of young Scout as she is exposed to the failures of the world around her, Go Set a Watchman bears the voice of Jean Louise and the struggle of knowing that the evil she opposes can even be found in the idol she has constructed. On display is the traumatic event of a child coming to grips with the fact that the parent she has adored and worshiped is merely a man: flawed, fallen, and far from perfect.  The reader is likewise deflated and infuriated by the revelation of a man where a god once resided.  As disconcerting as this crash to reality threatens to be, readers are also given an Atticus Finch that is a significantly more character and much less caricature and a story that is significantly more compelling as a whole than To Kill a Mockingbird on its own.
Atticus Finch, the racist, was not received well by the public.  Karla Nielson noted that some high school students visiting his exhibit at Columbia University “didn’t want to read (Go Set a Watchman) because they were attached to Atticus's characterization (in To Kill a Mockingbird )" (Hatoum).  These students were not alone.  Blogs and comment boards ran the gamut of Kubler-Ross grief stages, fixating mainly on anger and acceptance … if conspiracy theories about the new Atticus owing his existence to unknown authors and Lee’s utter non-involvement with the work count as acceptance.  Suffice it to say, Go Set a Watchman’s Atticus will not be the cultural icon that To Kill a Mockingbird’s proved to be. 
To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus is a hero.  He is presented as he is viewed through the eyes of his young daughter, Scout.  He is the man who calls out lynch mob members by name, hunts down a rabid dog when others are unwilling or unable, and puts his name and family in harm’s way in order to defend a black man falsely accused.  He is more than a hero.  He is a messiah.  Throughout the To Kill a Mockingbird narrative, Atticus is the moral compass.  He is a firm foundation upon which Scout can rest assured.  Even in the rockiest of seas (standing in front of a Klan cloaked lynch mob, for instance), Atticus remains firm.  Scout could rest assured that, even if everything else fell down around her, Atticus was there to stand.  She counted on him, depended on him, and placed her faith in him.  He was a deity of Scout’s own making.  He was her idol. 
But he was not just this for the character Scout.  Atticus functioned in this way for multitudes of readers (and movie viewers) over the past fifty-plus years.  There comes a time; however, when children must slay their idols (as Jean Louise will reluctantly do in Go Set a Watchman), and many readers never had that privilege with their own parents.  Either due to absence or dereliction, too many children never even had the chance to idolize a parent.  Atticus filled that void for many by becoming in the life of the reader what he was in the life of Scout.  It is no surprise that many a reader have had the same visceral reaction to the revelation of Atticus Finch the man that Jean Louise did in the pages of Go Set a Watchman.
In Go Set a Watchman, the voice of the narrator no longer belongs to a naïve child, passing instead to a worldly-wise young woman.  Where To Kill a Mockingbird had the voice of a child who knew nothing much beyond her doorstep, Go Set a Watchman bears the voice of a woman returning from her life in New York City to the simplicity (simplicity in a number of ways) of Maycomb County.  Some of the blinders; however, remain - especially in regards to Atticus. 
The Maycomb County Jean Louise returns to is quite different than the one she encountered as a child.  On a personal level; Jem is dead, Boo has vanished, and Dill is virtually absent.  The South is in an uproar over the Civil Rights Movement.  Desegregation is an inevitability, yet those who are determined to keep the South The South have formed citizen’s councils in lieu of explicit, full-on Klan affiliation.  If anyone in backwards Macomb County would champion the cause of the racially oppressed and stand opposed to segregationists like he did the lynch mob, Jean Louise and the reader would count on it being Atticus Finch.  But everyone soon finds out that this is not the case.  Jean Louise encounters an Atticus that is far less a god and far more a man.  And she cannot deal with it.
“I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me…I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d have been prepared for it somewhere along the line” (Lee, Location 346).
The revelation of Atticus’s attitudes on race has “knocked [Jean Louise] down and stomped on [her] and spat on [her]” (Location 352).  The fact that Atticus, the man she adored, idolized, and worshipped, has less-than-evolved views on race takes the life out of Jean Louise.  “Everything [she] ever loved in this world” (Location 352) has been removed and the truth about Atticus has “killed” (Location 352) her.  Suffice it to say, this revelation has been traumatic for Jean Louise.  It has also been so for many a reader.
The ideal man of To Kill a Mockingbird has been replace by the real man of Go Set a Watchman.  Go Set a Watchman presents Atticus as viewed through the eyes of an adult and, while a child is and can often remain blind to the flaws that are readily apparent to many; the eyes of an adult can see warts and blemishes far too well.  There is comfort found through the eyes of a child, but there is truth found through the eyes of an adult.  Truth is not always as pleasant as fantasy.  The idol of Jean Louise’s heart is perfect.  The man who is her father is flawed, fallen, and far-far from perfect.
"As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God,"(Location 364.9) her uncle tells Jean Louise.  Knowing his brother far better than Jean Louise has allowed herself to know her father, he adds, “He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being” (Location 366.3). Jean Louise would not allow the Atticus of her creation to descend to the Atticus of reality.  Atticus’s failures and faults belong to Atticus.  However, his plummet from the stratosphere, and the resulting fallout, belongs to Jean Louise.  She is the one who placed him where no human belongs and from where every idol is destined to crashed down.  “Our [self-created] gods are remote from us, Jean Louise. They must never descend to human level” (Location 366).  When they do, their fraudulence is tragically exposed.  Atticus cannot be blamed for not being everything Jean Louise, and the reader, wanted him to be.  He is human.  To Kill a Mockingbird masked that.  Go Set a Watchman reveals it, explicitly.  Go Set a Watchman, combined with To Kill a Mockingbird, creates an Atticus Finch who, rather than being the fantastical perspective of a child for her father, is raw and real. This Atticus is a much more nuanced, robust, and interesting character.
In a review for the Washington Times, Neely Tucker summarized the feelings of many (including Jean Louise) when she noted that in Go Set a Watchman, “Atticus Finch has devolved from being a heroic lawyer to a petty bigot” (Tucker).  What seems more accurate is that Atticus Finch has evolved from the To Kill a Mockingbird fantasy of a young girl to the Go Set a Watchman reality thrust upon an unsuspecting Jean Louise.  In the eyes of Jean Louise, and many readers, he has shifted from god to human.  While that shift would be a significant devolution in a real person, it is a giant leap forward in creating a relatable, realistic, nuanced character because it is, quite simply, a revelation of what was always there.  NPR's Maureen Corrigan suggested, that "This Atticus is different in kind, not just degree: He's like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield a phony" (Corrigan).  That is true, but not in the sense that Corrigan offers.  This Atticus is certainly different in kind, but it is based on the presentation of the man rather than the man himself.  He is not “Ahab turned whale lover;” he is fantasy turned reality.
Some have argued previously that the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird was not the pristine bastion of everything holy that a middle-school reading of the novel coupled with a Gregory Peck-infatuation causes him to be seen as in the minds of many.  The hints of the reality were present even before Go Set a Watchman.  Toni Morrison famously criticized To Kill a Mockingbird as being a “white savior” narrative and others have similarly criticized the book and its hero.  John Matthews, Professor of English at Boston University, notes that in To Kill a Mockingbird,
“Atticus embodies the systemic racism of white paternalism. It’s white people who take responsibility for black people’s problems…. No question, there’s a bravery in what Atticus does in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s just that all the circumstances around him suggest he’s still a person with prejudice operating inside a world that is blind to the full humanity of black people” (Rimer). 
Matthews says that this is what makes Go Set a Watchman so different.  Beyond being different, it is what is needed.  No one could argue that Go Set a Watchman is anywhere near the book that To Kill a Mockingbird is.  Go Set a Watchman did not have the editing of To Kill a Mockingbird and it suffers in prose, structure, and overall quality when compared to its Pulitzer winning predecessor.  What it does have is an Atticus who is more in line with reality.  Atticus did not “devolve” from “a heroic lawyer to a petty bigot;” he was and is both.  Welcome to the Civil Rights era south.  Mary Badham, who portrayed Scout in the 1962 movie, was asked if she was surprised by the evolution of Atticus.  She said that she was not. “In the Alabama she knew, it was not unheard of for a white man like him to righteously defend a black man like Tom Robinson against an unjustified charge of rape, and at the same time believe, as Atticus says in “Go Set a Watchman,” that black people were “backward,” not “ready” to exercise their full civil rights. She heard all that and much more growing up in Birmingham. (Everyone) did” (Russakof).
The south has had an interesting relationship with race and politics.  The church in the south is a good microcosm of this issue.  The Presbyterian Church in America (southern Presbyterians) and the Southern Baptist Convention have each adopted measures over the past few years to offer repentance for grievous sins committed during the Civil Rights era.  The sad fact of the matter is that many good, upstanding, honest, fair, caring, and loving men and women had horrendous views and actions in regards to race, quite like Atticus Finch.  Prejudices are woven into the very fabric of a person and are hard to remove without completely unraveling.
This is not a truth limited to Maycomb County, southern culture, or the pre-Civil Rights era.  This is a fact of humanity.  It has been said that even the best of men are men at best, and this applies especially to those who get placed on a pedestal to be emulated and worshipped.   Atticus Finch was a man who did not transcend his culture.  While he never plumbed the depths of what Maycomb County offered, he never exceeded the cultural and moral ceiling that existed either.  He was a man of his times.  He was an exceptional man in many regards, but when it came down to it, he was still a man of his times.
When addressing issues such as these, it is critical to not excuse evils.  Atticus’s attitudes expressed in Go Set a Watchman are deplorable.  Approving speech of “infant” (Lee, Location 349) races that need to “stay in their place” (Location 209) is inappropriate to say the very least, disgusting if one wants to be candid.  However, it is equally as crucial when dealing with history to not be anachronistic.  When reading about the perilous trips across the seas during the 18th century, the reader cannot rightly ask “Why did they not just take a plane?”  Ideological limitations due to the forces of the cultural milieu might not be as cumbersome as aeronautical limitations due to the force of gravity, but an impeding downward force it remains.  Atticus Finch was as fine a product of Maycomb County as there was, but he was still a product of Maycomb County.  To Kill a Mockingbird shrouds this fact with the perspective of a child, and disillusionment arises due to the fact that the reader has only known this veiled Atticus.  When the veneer comes off in Go Set a Watchman, the reader either can accept that people are people, or lament that their idol has been dethroned.  Alyssa Rosenberg comments on the benefit of Go Set a Watchman’s Atticus when she argues that,
[While] finding that (Atticus is) not what we needed him to be disconcerts some readers… "Watchman" is part of the process of divesting ourselves of the idea that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, "we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs." If racism can belong to Atticus Finch -- and if it became his property through the same processes that made him a hero -- it can belong to anyone (Rosenberg).
Responding to Jean Louise’s emotional outburst, probably one mimicked by many a reader, Atticus extols Jean Louise to “come down to earth.”  That is exactly what the revelation of Atticus causes.  Jean Louise and the reader have elevated Atticus to the heavens, and as he comes (rightfully) crashing down, all who have staked their hopes upon him come crashing down with him.  It is easy to see why. 
To Kill a Mockingbird was about young Jean Louise Finch coming of age.  It was about her realizing that the world around her was not always how it appeared and dealing with the brokenness that defined what surrounded.  Go Set a Watchman is about the same.  Grown Jean Louise Finch has yet to fully come to grips with the world surrounding her, and it takes the revelation of who Atticus actually is to realize what the world actually is: a broken place filled with broken people.  These truths help make the entire Atticus Finch character a much more compelling character than the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird, who was honestly a caricature at best.  Nuanced Atticus might not be as viscerally rewarding as the fantasy, but a robust, realistic Atticus creates a much more compelling story as a whole.  Randall Kennedy is right when he says,
Though it does not represent Harper Lee's best work, (Go Set a Watchman) does reveal more starkly the complexity of Atticus Finch, her most admired character.  Watchman demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of Mockingbird [because while] in America in 1960, the story of a decent white Southerner who defends an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman had the appeal of a fairy tale and the makings of a popular movie…(f)ully realized, (Go Set a Watchman) might have become a modern masterpiece”(Kennedy).
Some works should have never been.  In fairness, Go Set a Watchman never truly was.  Discarded relatively early in favor of the sentimental To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman never received the opportunity it needed (and deserved) to become the masterpiece it should have been.  This embryonic dissolution of Go Set a Watchman is as great a tragedy, if not more so, as the dethroning of Atticus Finch contained therein.  The Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman and the story of Jean Louise’s adult coming-of-age could have been a character and a narrative that withstood the test of time.  Scout’s fantasy being replaced by Jean Louise’s reality in no devolution in character, no matter how much Atticus the idol is preferred over Atticus the man.




Works Cited
Corrigan, Maureen. "Harper Lee's 'Go Set a Watchman' Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece." NPR. NPR, 7 July 2015. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
Hatoum, Sarah. "Go Set a Go Set a Watchman by the Numbers." Library Journal 140.14 (2015): 14,n/a. ProQuest. Web. 11 Jan. 2016.
Kennedy, Randall. "Harper Lee's 'Go Set a Go Set a Watchman'." Jul 14 2015.Web. ProQuest.11 Jan. 2016 .
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Go Set a Watchman. London: Cornerstone, 2015. Print.
Rimer, Sara. "Why Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman Matters | BU Today | Boston University." BU Today RSS. 31 July 2015. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.
Rosenberg, Alyssa. 'Go Set a Go Set a Watchman' has Important Insights into Contemporary Racism. Washington: WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post, 2015.ProQuest. Web. 11 Jan. 2016.
Russakof, Dale. "The Atticus Finch We Always Knew - The New Yorker." The New Yorker. 17 July 2015. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.

Tucker, Neely. "What Harper Lee's Attorney Doesn't Say in an Op-ed Is Revealing." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 13 July 2015. Web. 11 Jan. 2016.