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The two Atticuses: 'Mockingbird's hero radically reshaped from 'Watchman's racist version

Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch in the 1962 To Kill a Mockingbird movie helped cement the character as a hero.
Published Jul. 22, 2015

"I just don't like my world disturbed without some warning."

Spoken by grownup Jean Louise Finch in Go Set a Watchman, the newly published novel by Harper Lee, those words reflect what many readers are feeling about the book.

Released on July 14, Watchman is the first work by Lee to be published since her debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, came out in 1960. The books share two main characters, Jean Louise and her lawyer father, Atticus Finch, and a setting, the tiny fictional town of Maycomb, Ala.

The most memorable character in Mockingbird is Atticus — indeed, he's one of the most memorable, and most admired, fictional characters in American culture. His principled, dignified defense of a black man wrongly accused of rape in the segregated South in the 1930s has proved nothing short of inspirational for many of the novel's millions of readers. People name their kids and dogs after Atticus; some lawyers cite him as the reason they went to law school.

The Atticus we've just met in Watchman is a couple of decades older and a very different man: a staunch segregationist and board member of a white supremacist "citizens council" of the sort that sprang up all around the Deep South in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

He tells his daughter that "the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. … They've made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they're far from it yet." He regards the efforts of the federal government and the NAACP to advance civil rights as "an invasion." When Jean Louise lashes him with an angry outburst, he doesn't retreat a bit.

So how did Atticus go from a standard-bearer of racial equality to a cranky old racist?

Well, he didn't.

Who came first?

Watchman is set in the late 1950s, Mockingbird in the 1930s. But, although its characters are older, Watchman was written first.

Lee submitted Watchman to publisher J.B. Lippincott in 1957, and the company chose not to publish it. The book that was published this month is that manuscript. The editor who turned it down in '57, Tay Hohoff, told Lee that she did see promise in some of the passages in which the 26-year-old Jean Louise recalls her childhood (which are indeed among the best in the book) and advised the fledgling author to write another novel.

The result was Mockingbird, published in 1960. It switched Watchman's third-person narration by the adult Jean Louise to first-person narration by her 6-year-old self, nicknamed Scout. That switch in Scout's point of view toward Atticus — from a young woman who has moved away from home and is questioning many of the values she was raised with, to a little girl whose daddy is the shining center of her universe — switches the reader's view of Atticus as well and is crucial to reshaping him as a hero.

Much of what's been written about Watchman focuses on Atticus, but it's worth noting that Jean Louise is a much less likable character in that book, too, compared to the charming Scout. Adult Jean Louise is sometimes funny and perceptive, but she's just as often self-absorbed and self-righteous. She has been living in New York City for several years and seems to be on a mission to show all the hicks in Maycomb how backward they are compared to her sophisticated self, which wears thin in a hurry.

Her outraged response to the discovery that her father holds racist views also raises the question of, well, how the hell could she not know? Of course, as a child in Maycomb, racist attitudes were the water she swam in; when beliefs are all around us, we are less likely to question them until time and distance bring them into sharper relief.

Atticus' views have proved shocking to many readers, too; some 60 years after Watchman was written, such overt racism sadly still exists but is far less acceptable than it used to be. It might not have been so shocking to readers had it come from the mouth of a character we'd never heard of before; the Atticus of Watchman is, in historical terms, entirely realistic.

It's the Atticus of Mockingbird who is the anomaly. The odds that such a man would exist in a tiny, remote Alabama town in the 1930s are small. The odds that he would publicly express the idea that blacks should receive equal justice, as Atticus does when chiding the audience at the trial for the "evil assumption" that they should judge anyone by the color of their skin, are even smaller.

Anyone familiar with American history knows that this Atticus is almost impossibly idealized, yet people believe in him. One reason is that Lee's writing improved by leaps and bounds between Watchman and Mockingbird.

The first book she wrote is stuffed with unconvincing dialogue, exchanges in which characters speak in page-long paragraphs and argue as if they're in a dull law school class instead of at the family dinner table — and all sound pretty much alike. The dialogue in Mockingbird, on the other hand, is much more streamlined and believable, and it showcases Atticus' dry wit and folksy wisdom. Mockingbird also, unlike Watchman, has a plot, a dramatic arc that pits Atticus against frightening enemies and demonstrates his courage and self-control.

Atticus on screen

What really made Atticus a hero, though, is not just the book but the movie based on it. Directed by Robert Mulligan, To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1962, just two years after the book, so the movie has been shaping our perceptions of Lee's text for most of its history.

The film's most influential element is Gregory Peck's stellar performance as Atticus. It was a career-defining role for an actor who was already a major star. Not only did he rock a seersucker suit and horn-rimmed glasses like no one else, he also turned in an understated but powerful performance that painted the small-town lawyer as something in the vicinity of a saint.

In 2003 the American Film Institute voted Atticus, as portrayed by Peck, the greatest hero in American film.

Indeed, some have seen him as a little too saintly — novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and other critics have called him a "white savior," a kind of character who demeans black characters by implying they're incapable of helping themselves. There's no question that Mockingbird focuses on its white characters and their reactions to racism, rather than its black ones.

The movie version of Mockingbird was nominated for eight Oscars and won three, including Peck's for best actor. It also won for Horton Foote's script, which makes Atticus even more admirable, and proactive about the rape case, than he is in the novel. In the book, Atticus just mentions to his brother that he was appointed by the judge to take the case. In the movie, the judge starts to describe Tom Robinson's plight and Atticus says promptly, "I'll take the case."

Sent into the world

It was Lee, however, who provided the moviemakers with the material to form that hero, and she did it by revising and reshaping the character she created in Watchman in radical ways.

What we know is that the Atticus of Mockingbird is her final work of art, the one she clearly meant to send out into the world.

The unanswered question is why she changed him so much. One possibility is that she was influenced by watching the civil rights movement unfold before her eyes, as so many Americans were doing, and felt the need for such a hero.

Forget about those hoary rumors that Mockingbird was really written by Truman Capote. He and Lee were longtime friends — he was the inspiration for Scout's pal Dill — and they surely influenced each other's writing. But there's no way that Capote, who loved fame as much as Lee loathed it, would have been able to resist taking credit for a book that won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize if he had written it.

It is plausible that Lee's writing of Mockingbird was much influenced by Hohoff, and that Atticus' development might have been shaped by the editor as well. We will probably never know; Hohoff died in 1974, and Lee, who at age 89 is mostly deaf and blind, has been in an assisted living home since a stroke several years ago and has little communication with the outside world.

Most of her fans are familiar with the peculiar route that Watchman took to print. Lee has insisted for decades that she did not intend to publish anything else. But shortly after her older sister Alice Lee, an indomitable lawyer whom Lee called "Atticus in a skirt," died at age 103 last year, an associate in Alice's law firm named Tonja Carter (who is now Lee's lawyer and estate trustee) announced that she had found the Watchman manuscript in a "secure location," later described as a safe deposit box.

HarperCollins announced in February that the book would be published, setting off a firestorm of interest, but its contents were kept under strict wraps — thus springing the racist earlier version of Atticus as an unpleasant surprise for readers. The publisher said on July 20 that Watchman sold 1.1 million copies in its first week.

Carter has insisted all along that Lee is mentally competent and that she consented to and supported the publication of Watchman, although there has been no independent confirmation. The day before the book was released, Carter wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal in which she announced that yet another manuscript had been discovered in that magical safe deposit box. She assured the public she would bring in experts to analyze its contents and verify that it was indeed by Harper Lee.

That raises an interesting question: If Lee is competent and making her own decisions, why not just ask her if she wrote it?

I can only wish Lee had a lawyer like Atticus — the Mockingbird Atticus — to ask that question.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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