When I pointed to him his palms slipped slightly, leaving greasy sweat streaks on the wall, and he hooked his thumbs in his belt. A strange small spasm shook him, as if he heard fingernails scrape slate, but as I gazed at him in wonder the tension slowly drained from his face. His lips parted into a timid smile, and our neighbor’s image blurred with my sudden tears.
“Hey, Boo,” I said.
“Mr. Arthur, honey,” said Atticus, gently correcting me. “Jean Louise, this is Mr. Arthur Radley. I believe he already knows you.”
If Atticus could blandly introduce me to Boo Radley at a time like this, well—that was Atticus.
—From “To Kill a Mockingbird”
I’ll never forget reading that scene as a child and how my eyes pooled with tears. They did again the other day when I reread the book. Boo, the pale hermit next door about whom the neighborhood children had spun gothic tales of derangement, was suddenly out from the shadows and revealed as a friend. And Atticus Finch, Jean Louise’s father, maintaining his composure on that dramatic evening and seeing to the small courtesies that, he knew, were part of the price we pay to continue civilization . . .
What a character Atticus was, a true American hero of the 20th century. He was strong but pacific, philosophical and gentle-natured. Still, on that summer day when mothers called their children in because a dog was walking erratically down the street it was Atticus who took a rifle, kneeled down, adjusted his eyeglasses and took down the rabid hound with one perfect shot.
I have a friend who’s honestly heartbroken at how Atticus is depicted in Harper Lee’s newly released novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” “I can’t bear to lose Atticus,” she emailed. “I’ll just cling to Gregory Peck and pay no attention to what the author is publishing. They just keep taking away my heroes.” Later she said of Harper Lee: “I’ll never forgive her.” I responded: “She was a young writer. She wrote a first, bad book. Then she wrote a great one. Forgive her.”
But I know how my friend felt. She herself was already launched on a great New York career when “Mockingbird” was published in 1960, and her heroes were those of her day, JFK and Dr. King. But they were human and imperfect. Atticus wasn’t real, so he promised to stay fixed in time and never disappoint.
I think part of his power as a figure of literature—as a figure of American life—is that he wasn’t only on the right side, he was on the right side in the right way. He was for my generation the perfect father figure: calm, reliable, full of integrity and always there—the kind of father anyone would want and few would have.
He was fictional. A writer made him up. Harper Lee made up Atticus Finch just as Tolstoy made up Anna Karenina and Dickens, Scrooge. They weren’t real but through the alchemy of art wound up being more real to us than the man next door.
Messy life, or at least messy publishing, has now famously intruded, and we have Ms. Lee’s first book since “Mockingbird,” which was set in the 1930s in a sleepy Alabama town. Although written before “Mockingbird,” “Go Set a Watchman” is set 20 years later, after Brown v. Board of Education. And as we know we meet a new Atticus, a racial segregationist. The Atticus of “Mockingbird” was a symbol of the future, a lawyer who believed in equality under the law and defended an innocent black man at considerable personal and reputational cost. This was a story that gave readers something to aspire to.
The new book shows an Atticus fighting the future, trying to hold on to something that is wicked and doomed and that puts him in league with the local white Citizens’ Council and its racist rants. When his daughter, Jean Louise—known in childhood (and in “Mockingbird”) as Scout—visits him from New York and sees him at one of their meetings, she is dumbfounded. “She knew little of the affairs of men, but she knew that her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth—did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned. She felt sick.”
The bigotry in “Watchman” is drawn broadly. The locals speak not only racial slurs but slurs against Catholics and Jews. But it is not without meaning that all of the people quoted speaking this way are portrayed by Ms. Lee as fools—either ignorant and proud of it or unknowingly stupid and remediable.
I was unjust in my email to my friend when I called it a bad book, but it is a curious one. It shows the awkwardness, the stops and starts, of the young writer. The protagonist, Jean Louise, is the one we agree with: Segregation is evil and must stop. And yet as a character she is drawn unappealingly, always making long speeches and hurling accusations at those who love her and brought her up. Atticus, now in his 70s, holds views the reader will reject, yet he is patient, sincere—more human as a character than his daughter. Sometimes as I read I thought: What was Harper Lee up to?
At the end Jean Louise realizes that her anger in part arises from moral displacement. All her life her father had been a person of unquestioned rectitude, and her admiration was such that she never quite developed an independent conscience of her own. Faced with a quandary she’d ask “What would Atticus do?” Now in the America of the 1950s, she would no longer be able to outsource her sense of right and wrong. She would have to grow up. And so, the book implies, would America.
So is the old Atticus gone? Are we bereft of a national hero? No.
If every time “To Kill a Mockingbird” plays on TV and a child sees it, or a child is moved by the book, someone helpfully points out that “Atticus was a racist,” it would be sad. Children’s hearts shouldn’t be made heavy. Reality will assault them sooner or later, but it’s good when you’re young to be inspired by dreams. They make you strong.
In any case it seems to me the South has produced some new heroes recently, and they’re not made-up but real ones. The relatives who forgave the killer in Charleston and who wept as they told the suspect they were praying for his soul, and who meant it—you don’t get any better and braver than that. And the people who, after witnessing that moment, took the Confederate battle flag from public grounds . . .
Atticus never lived and can never die, and if you want to visit him you can pick up a book. America is an interesting place and we don’t have to look to fiction to be inspired.