The literary world
rejoiced when news disclosed that reclusive author Harper Lee was
soon to release her second book “Go Set A Watchman,”
after fifty-five years since the 1960 publication of “To Kill A
As one of the most
lauded novels in American history- and arguably as popular as the
Christian Bible - Harper Lee’s Southern Gothic
and coming-of-age story introduces the world to the beloved
fictional character of Atticus Finch. Finch, the father of
six-year-old precocious Scout, the novel’s narrator,
is a widower and small-town Alabama attorney who becomes our nation’s
moral conscience and standard-bearer of justice and integrity.
the background of Jim Crow’s old South Atticus Finch’s
tireless defense of Tom Robinson, an African American man falsely
accused but unfortunately charged guilty of raping a white
women, catapulted him as one of the most celebrated heroic
figures in American film and literature. In 2003, the American Film
Institute named Atticus as the greatest movie hero of all-times. So
honored is Atticus Finch that he’s a model for many of today’s
lawyers and popular baby name for males.
When Atticus in “To
Kill A Mockingbird” states to Scout, “Why reasonable
people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up,
is something I don’t pretend to understand,” as a
thoughtful and measured response decrying racial prejudice, no one
would imagine Lee’s second novel “Go Set A Watchman,”
to reveal the blight of racial strife in Atticus as an aging angry
bigot and separatist. And news of Atticus taking a 180-degree turn
has sent shock waves across the Internet.
Set A Watchmen” is set twenty years after Lee’s 1930s
Depression era first novel. Atticus, now 72, worries he
can potentially reside in a world unimaginable with the
1954 landmark U. S. Supreme Court, "Brown v.
Board of Education,” decision to desegregate public
schools and facilitates “with all deliberate speed.”
you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and
theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Atticus asks
Scout in “Go Set A Watchman.” Scout’s now
twenty-six years, uses her birth name, Jean Louise, and lives in New
York City as a writer. Atticus warns his daughter during her recent
summer trip home that “if the Negro vote edged out
the white, you’d have Negroes in every county office,”
suggesting to a Negro mayor of Maycomb.
For those who prefer
Scout’s hagiographic depiction of her father, then
Jean Louise’s Atticus you don’t want to know:
outnumbered here [in Maycomb].” … “ Our
Negro population is backward.”… “made
terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways,”…”Negroes
down here are still in their childhood as a people."
Atticus is a
eugenicist who reads racist tracts like “The Black Plague;”
attends Maycomb County White Citizens’ Council in order to
organize and resist federal government edicts to desegregate; views
the NAACP as opportunists and troublemakers, joined America’s
most horrific domestic terrorists group, the Klu Klux Klan, in his
youth, and I surmise would resist the removal of the
Confederate battle flag from Alabama’s State House.
Jean Louise finds
inner strength and wisdom to love Atticus in spite of his
contradictions, hypocrisy and bigotry, especially given the racial
tenor of his day.
While many critics
are questioning the veracity of Lee’s authorship of her second
book, both books reveal our cultural dis-ease with race, particularly
the reality and limits of Atticus’s old-style Southern
liberalism - paternalistic while upholding the fallacious doctrine of
“separate and equal” to keep blacks in their place.
portrait of Atticus will undoubtedly reopen discussion about
race and Atticus’s hero status in “Mockingbird”
that Boston Globe writer Hillel Italie aptly points out “has
been admired more by whites than by blacks” due to the
literary troupe of the “white savoir.”
The literary troupe
of the “white savior,” - as also depicted in Kathryn
Stockett’s 2009 novel “The Help” - makes the
assumptions that African Americans are not agents in their
liberation struggles and it erases as well as insults a civil rights
movement already afoot.
title “Go Set a Watchman” is taken from the Book of
Isaiah, chapter 21, verse 6, which reads: “This
is what the Lord says to me: ‘Go, set a watchman; let
him report what he sees.” The phrase means to go out into the
world and set a moral compass by “speaking truth to
And in so doing,
perhaps now with an accurate portrait of Atticus Finch we
can begin to have an honest discussion on race.