A Racist Atticus and a Mess of a Book? Bring It On.


I was skeptical when news first broke that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-shelved novel, would be published. Lee has famously refused to let her manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, ever see the light of day.

Why did she change her mind? Did she change her mind? Given her advanced age and failing health, people are concerned she’s being taken advantage of. While I know people who can’t get past those concerns, I’m willing to proceed as a reader; an independent investigation involving two Alabama agencies has found her competent to make decisions about her work.

Now as the book is being released and reviews begin to surface, people are nervous for a new reason: apparently this novel does not measure up to the near-perfection of Mockingbird. And perhaps more heartbreakingly, neither does Atticus. It seems unthinkable that a man who would single-handedly take on the Alabama justice system on behalf of an innocent black man would attend a Klan meeting, or denounce the Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.

But I say: bring it on.

Don’t get me wrong. I condemn the sin of racism, collectively, individually and in my own heart. I don’t relish an Atticus Finch who harbored paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans in the South, or fretted that white schools would decline in quality once they were integrated.

I don’t delight in such a portrayal of Atticus, and will likely read the book with a sick feeling. But I suspect 2015 America needs this Atticus. I’ll be reading the book, not as a novel, but as an historical document. Go Set a Watchman gives us a peek into the mind of a young, inexperienced writer who would go on to write the Great American Novel. But more importantly, it will give us a glimpse into our own soul as a nation.

We’re struggling with a legacy of racism in this country. Condoleezza Rice, no bleeding-heart liberal herself, has called racism our country’s “birth defect.” The last several months have revealed to many of us what others have known their whole lives. So now what? We need to be talking to one another about this legacy. It’s painful and important.

But how? We can start by being honest about our history, ourselves, and yes, our heroes. The problem is, we like our heroes untouchable. We want Atticus to have “cute” flaws, like exasperation over Scout’s mischief, or a nervous fumbling with his eyeglasses as he shoots a rabid dog. But Atticus, at least as Harper Lee envisioned him, was a complicated, deeply conflicted man. How do his (considerable) blind spots in Watchman influence how we understand the whole character?

In my tradition, and many other Christian traditions, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe in the communion of saints.” What do we mean by that? Presbyterians don’t have an elaborate process of canonization like the Catholic Church. Rather we believe in a “great cloud of witnesses,” people who’ve gone before us who have shown us what it means to live faithfully and well. We call them saints, even though not a single one was perfect—indeed, many of them were deeply flawed indeed. And yet occasionally, they got it right. Beautifully, shiningly right.

Atticus may still be that kind of saint for us—not because of his racist tendencies in Watchman, but despite them. If it were not so, would there be hope for any of us? Our ability to succeed and thrive as a nation depends on imperfect people coming together around a painful conversation and movement: warts, flaws, biases and all. I have them; apparently Atticus had them too.

As Dorothy Day has said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” An Atticus as preserved in Mockingbird is so perfect as to be unreachable. An Atticus whose story straddles the two novels is like us. And in aspiring to be our best selves, we can be like his best self. When the heavy machinery of upbringing and personal comfort and culture grinds against what’s right, we can stand up. We must.


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14 thoughts on “A Racist Atticus and a Mess of a Book? Bring It On.

  1. Paul Hooker

    Nicely said, MaryAnn. I grew up in 1950s Nashville and 1960s Birmingham where there were some good people trying to figure out how to honor people whose skin color was dark. Most of them didn’t go to Klan meetings, but they didn’t march in the streets either. They had a foot in both worlds, and as the gap between them widened, their stance threatened to tear them apart. My parents were of the Atticus Finch generation, and I know what that cost them. I also know it made them richer as human beings, more complex, and less ready to condemn. They never completely shed their culturally-assumed racism, but they never stopped being self-critical about it, either. Not a bad place to start, I guess.

  2. Charlie Chadwick

    I cannot agree more with the sentiments you express here. We want our heroes to be perfect and too often discard them when they are not. It’s as if looking for their imperfections is the new national pastime. But as you note, their imperfections lend us hope that we can, when needed, rise to the heights they do at their best.

    But after looking at the reviews of Go Set a Watchman, I have to note that there is an underlying assumption in those reviews that is incorrect. They assume that the two novels are a continuum, that the portrait of Atticus in Mockingbird is intended to be fleshed out in Watchman. That is not the case. If the characters names were changed in Watchman we would see Watchman simply as Lee’s first fumbling attempt to deal with the same issues as in Mockingbird and stop there. Mockingbird is a totally different work. The values and ethical framework it expresses via Atticus stand alone. I can understand the reactions of those who love Mockingbird to this different Atticus. If she had published Watchman first and then a few years later published Mockingbird, I think we would have praised her recreation of the character as much as we may be disturbed by the earlier version that we now have a chance to see.

    Having seen first drafts of great novels on more than one occasion, I can tell you this happens more often than might be thought. It’s part of the creative process. We should allow Harper Lee the right to have had second thoughts. To have said to herself, “This person needs to be different than what I first thought.” We should allow Lee the same right we want for ourselves — to think and change and not be bound by what we were, but allowed to grow into something different (and hopefully better). Perhaps we would be happier if she had kept those first thoughts to herself — who wants to see a less desirable portrait of an idol? But would Harper Lee be content to hide those early thoughts? There is a level of honesty in her allowing Watchman be published that I find noble. She had to know what the reaction would be. Sometimes age can free us.


    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      This is all very well said. The other dimension of this is that Harper Lee based Atticus on her own father, and to some extent her sister Alice. Does that mean that the Atticus of Mockingbird and of Watchman were ‘at war’ in the heart of her beloved father? Could be.

  3. Mamala


    When I heard a brief blurb on NPR this morning (before turning it off, as I’m on a media blackout about this book until I have read it) that talked about the “racist” Atticus, I said to myself “hooray” as I just heard the thought and theory over and over again for the past 4 days at the Wild Goose Festival that until the U.S. owns up to and admits its racist “past” and the sin of slavery, we can not move forward and heal this nation and make amends to the people (black lives) that we have harmed along the way.

    If Atticus “evolved” on this belief then good for him and good for Harper Lee for writing about this in her stories. There have been surprisingly some/(many?) on “the other side of this issue (believing that symbols like the Confederate flag are not racist) have an “Atticus moment” of transformation since the terrorist, racist massacre in Charleston.

    It’s hopeful to me that their coming to a new understanding of what that symbol means if you’ve been on the receiving end of the hate and violence it has inspired is a good start. Lee may once again have contributed to the dialogue that we must have with each other if we are to move forward and change.

    Know hope.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Indeed I hope the book functions in exactly that way!

      I didn’t hit this hard in the post but as a writer, I’m fascinated to peel back the curtain and see the mind of the author at work.

  4. Christine Vogel

    Thought provoking MaryAnn. I too am avoiding lots of the press so I can read the novel without all sorts of pre-determined prejudice

  5. Wendy

    I wonder how many people who see Atticus as the unflawed hero of TKaM are remembering the Gregory Finch film version of Atticus rather than the man in the book. How many of us haven’t read the book since we were 13 or 14 or 15? I read it as a sophomore and it was seminal for me and remains my “favorite book I had to read for school” ever (and I have a Ph.D. in literature: I’ve had to read a lot of books for school). I taught it a handful of times over a decade ago. I am re-reading now in anticipation of the film and I am astonished at how much subtle, intrinsic, and unremarked racism is simply a part of like in Maycomb, including the Finch home (I’m halfway through). In some ways the messages of the book may be more powerful because the Finches are not above at least the benevolent, paternalistic racism of the gracious whites in such a time and place. I do love the film, but there is so much in the book. It’s worth re-reading, but it may not be quite as we collectively remember. It’s a powerful film, and it’s a complex and rich book with complex characters. (I always had a soft spot for the first half, especially the Mrs. DuBose story. I don’t remember how much if any of that makes it into the film. It’s a coming of age story for 2 kids and a town.)

  6. Lillian Jane Steele,MA

    Gregory Peck and many other actors of his generation sometimes took on unpopular roles that may have cast a shadow on what their white fans wanted them to be. In playing Atticus and a Nazi doctor gone haywire in a film that he made towards the end of his most stellar career as an actor he took two risks in order to let people see how some people are. Atticus grew up in the early twentieth century and was exposed to many accepted mores that most white men of the south were expected to conform to. However lets all read the book and see how the younger Atticus grew to see how racism became the poison that it is. And considering the events of the last two weeks in Charleston,SC may this allow all of us to move forward to a better south. LJ Steele, MA Educator

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      The chronology is very funny in this. She wrote Watchman before Mockingbird, but it’s set after Mockingbird, when Scout is grown up. So part of the poignancy is her realizing that her father was not the shining knight he was in childhood. I find that an intriguing conflict.

  7. Bob Braxton

    heard a talking head criticizing release to the public of some “unfinished” writing (supposedly quoting Hemingway). The thought occurs to me that God managed to publish the whole of creation – without an editor. Perhaps the talking head would object to this as well.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      It’s unusual to publish a book like this without an editor, but I think it’s the right decision. Then it becomes even more of a historical document–a glimpse into the mind of the writer.


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