America, Meet the Real Atticus Finch

July 22, 2015 | 2 books mentioned 4 9 min read


Imagine that you are an eighth-grade English teacher who has been teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for decades. The book works for your students because it tells a compelling story about an ugly period in American history in an accessible and often funny way, with children not much younger than the students in your classes as central characters. But you also return to it year after year because the novel provokes lively discussions of profound moral questions: What societal forces can turn even decent people into racists? How do we combat intolerance? Can one good man willing to die for the rule of law face down an angry mob?

coverBut with the school year weeks away, you are wavering about whether to put To Kill a Mockingbird on the syllabus this fall because you know that 10 minutes into the first day of teaching the book some smart ass in the back row will ask: “But wait, isn’t Atticus Finch a racist?”

This question troubles you because you have now read Go Set a Watchman, the 1957 precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird, and you know the smart ass in the back row is right. According to no less an authority than Harper Lee, Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of Mockingbird who defends an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman, is an ardent segregationist. In Watchman, the iconic character venerated by generations of American schoolchildren rails against the NAACP and invites a white supremacist to address the White Citizens Council he has helped organize to combat the 1954 Supreme Court decision ending segregation in public schools.

Try explaining that one to a 14-year-old.

In perhaps the richest irony of the ever-shifting tale of how an early draft of Lee’s classic novel came to be published 58 years after it was put in a drawer, the release of Go Set a Watchman may kill the goose that laid American publishing’s most lucrative golden egg by putting an end to a willfully misguided reading of one of the 20th century’s bestselling novels. If it does not, it should, for the plot of Go Set a Watchman, creaky as it is, shatters once and for all the popular misunderstanding of Atticus Finch’s legal philosophy that turned To Kill a Mockingbird into a white liberal fairy tale for the Civil Rights Era.

Were it not so clumsily constructed, Go Set a Watchman would be the great undiscovered masterwork of 20th-century Southern literature. Jean Louise Finch, who still answers to her childhood nickname of Scout, returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her family. Twenty years after the events of the novel American readers thought they knew so well, Jean Louise’s brother, Jem, is dead and has been replaced in the family structure by a neighbor boy named Henry Clinton, who stands to inherit her father’s law practice and who wants to marry Jean Louise. Meanwhile, Atticus has moved into a new home and the house Jean Louise grew up in has been replaced by an ice cream parlor. Finch Landing, the family’s ancestral home and the site of her fondest childhood memories, has been turned into hunting lodge.

More troublingly, Jean Louise learns that the grandson of Calpurnia, the family’s beloved cook, has killed the town drunk in a car accident. Atticus takes the case, not because he thinks he can get the young black man off for killing a white man — Calpurnia’s grandson is plainly guilty — but because he fears that if he doesn’t step in, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund will use the case to insist, among other things, that black people be seated on the jury. “Scout, you probably don’t know this, but the NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards waiting for things like this to happen,” Atticus tells her.

This breaks Jean Louise’s heart, and if Watchman were a better book, it would break ours, too. Jean Louise sees her father as a model of moral probity and racial tolerance, a man who defended a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman 20 years earlier (in Watchman, unlike in Mockingbird, Atticus wins an acquittal). She recalls hearing “her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentleman, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” When he tells her he plans to take the case to keep the NAACP at bay, Jean Louise struggles not to vomit up her morning coffee, and when he again calls her Scout she bristles. “His use of her childhood name crashed on her ears. Don’t you ever call me that again [she thought]. You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave.”

Unfortunately for readers of Go Set a Watchman, the inherent drama of Jean Louise’s disillusionment with her father is drowned in a sea of talk and murky plotting. Watchman is structured as a series of conversations Jean Louise has with friends and family members, intercut with extended memories of the “warm comfortable past” that she recalls Atticus presiding over.

For Watchman’s original readers, who could feel no nostalgia for a novel that had not yet been written, these flashbacks must have been puzzling. The scenes with Jem and Dill are carried off with Lee’s signature warmth and charm, but aside from standing as an Edenic counterpoint to the fallen world of present-day Maycomb, the flashbacks play little role in the novel. Jem is dead, and Dill is in Europe. Why, one wonders, are they even in this novel? Why create Jem only to kill him off and replace him with a surrogate brother for Jean Louise to consider marrying? It makes no sense.

It makes so little sense, in fact, that I could never shake the queasy feeling that Go Set a Watchman is part of some elaborate hoax. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Lee wrote Watchman as a failed sequel to Mockingbird. Perhaps another author wrote Watchman and has somehow passed it off as Lee’s long-lost first draft. I have no idea. All I know is the most powerful passages in the newly released novel — the revelation of Atticus’s stand against integration, the flashbacks with Dill and Jem, Scout’s visit to an ailing Calpurnia — moved me only because of my relationship to a book that did not exist when Watchman was ostensibly written. If I hadn’t read Mockingbird, why would I have plowed through 20 pages of Jean Louise’s memories of Jem and Dill, who don’t otherwise figure in Watchman? If I hadn’t read Mockingbird, why would I give a damn that Atticus Finch is a racist?

Whatever its true provenance, Go Set a Watchman, despite some deft prose and sharp dialogue, fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch. In an uncanny way, Jean Louise’s view of her father at the start of Watchman mirrors how generations of schoolchildren have been taught to read Atticus Finch in Mockingbird. In his daughter’s adoring eyes, Atticus is not merely an attorney who defended an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman, but a model for all that is good in white educated society. “She did not stand alone,” Lee writes, “but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father.

She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.

The passage is worth quoting at length because in it lies the heart of the tragedy of Go Set a Watchman. The great revelation of the novel isn’t that Atticus Finch is a bigot, but that he has been one all along and his daughter has been too in love with him to notice. “She was,” Lee writes, “extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”

If we are to accept the facts as they have been presented to us, Lee wrote those words before To Kill a Mockingbird was written, before the novel won a Pulitzer Prize and Gregory Peck won an Oscar for playing its hero in the movies. She wrote those words before white America, beleaguered by televised images of billy clubs raining down on the heads of praying women and Bull Connor’s dogs set upon children, fell in love with Atticus Finch as a good Southern white man standing up to white “trash” abusing law-abiding black people. Yet it is hard to read those words and not think Harper Lee is speaking to us, her future readers. She is telling us, “Don’t fall in love too easily with this man.” She is saying, “Listen carefully to everything he says because he is a much more complicated man than he appears.”

And of course she is right. Erase Gregory Peck from your memory. Forget everything your middle school teacher ever told you about To Kill a Mockingbird. Trim away the golden halo that materializes over Atticus’s head every time he appears on the page, and think about what he actually does in the novel. He doesn’t volunteer to take Robinson’s case; he is assigned it. He doesn’t win the case, either. Granted, Clarence Darrow couldn’t have won an acquittal in a black-on-white rape case in Depression-era Alabama, but Atticus goes into court expecting to lose and he is careful only to directly challenge Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, the alleged victim, two of the least powerful white people in Maycomb. Atticus does sit in front of the jail to protect his client from a lynching party, but one so feeble and half-hearted that the jabbering of an eight-year-old girl can shame them from their mission.

He also teaches Scout a memorable lesson about empathy, saying that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” The fact that Atticus uses the words “climb into his skin” rather than the commonplace “step into his shoes” certainly suggests he is thinking about people of different races, but in fact he is saying nothing of the kind. In the scene, he is advising Scout to empathize with her inexperienced teacher, Miss Caroline, and the other, less fortunate children at her school — all of whom are white.

I don’t mean to dismiss Atticus, who is a fundamentally decent man. For him, defending a man wrongly accused, whatever that man’s station in life, is a matter of conscience, and given the time and place in which he lives, the fact that he follows through on his beliefs shows rare courage. But nothing he does in To Kill a Mockingbird suggests he believes that black children should go to school with white children, or even that he believes that black people are equal to white people when they’re not on trial for their lives for a crime they did not commit.

In his summation at the end of the rape trial, Atticus lays out his peculiarly Southern patrician view of the foundational American idea of universal equality. “Thomas Jefferson once said all men are equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington [i.e. Eleanor Roosevelt] are fond of hurling at us,” he tells the jury. “There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious — because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.”

He continues: “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”

There, in plain English, is Atticus Finch’s view of human equality: All men are equal in a court of law, but to apply the axiom outside a courtroom is to take it “out of context.” We, Harper Lee’s white readers, fashioned out of the tissue of our desperate need for a white Southern hero a progressive icon yearning for a day when the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveowners will sit together at the table of brotherhood. But that man exists only in our minds, and in the mind of his worshipful eight-year-old daughter. On the page, Atticus makes clear that while he believes in the rule of law, in others sphere of life, including public education, he wants natural differences between people to be recognized.

In other words, the Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson against a trumped-up rape charge in To Kill a Mockingbird is very much the same Atticus Finch rallying to prevent school integration in Go Set a Watchman. All that changes between the two novels is the perspective of the narrator from a child to a grown woman. What this says about us, Harper Lee’s legions of white readers, is too obvious to bear stating.

In the closing pages of Go Set a Watchman, after Atticus and his brother Jack have worn Jean Louise down with hours of elegant sophistry on all the ways the Constitution allows for the enlightened subjugation of a race of people, Jack tells her bluntly that it is time for her see her father for the man he has always been:

“As you grew up, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings…You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that his answers would always be your answers.”

“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. Enough with grief about Atticus!

    Writers — of all people! — should know that Atticus V2.0, like his recently unveiled alpha version, was fictional. Lee could have penned another Atticus so TOTALLY repellant that he’d have to be in a plastic wrapper, like “American Psycho” in Australia.

    Dry your tears, everyone. We live in a racist country. It is also true that writers create fiction based on the realities around them. Why is it a shock that the first version of Atticus himself reflected the nasty racist nature of our country? And isn’t it ALSO wonderful that the sanitized version of this reality could be held up as a better example of where white American should be headed?

  2. I can’t take anything that was written in Watchman seriously. It was never meant for publication, and it’s just a money grab on the part of the people who are supposedly “taking care of” Harper Lee. After reading half of the book, I abandoned it, which is the appropriate response. Let’s ignore it and focus on the classic that is To Kill a Mockingbird.

  3. It is amazing to me that the writers of all of the reviews and the criticisms of Go Set of Watchman are insistent upon making a big deal out of absolutely nothing. I agree with the two people above me in the sense that this was a first draft; her editor said no to its publication, and they revised what then becomes To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman is nothing other a first author’s first attempt at a story idea. It’s insane to me what the media is doing to create hype over the situation. How will we educators deal with this book? Here’s how I will deal with this book: I will tell my students that there was a manuscript found that was a first draft that her editor said no to its publication as written. However, she liked the stories of the children and that’s what Harper Lee worked on for 2 1/2 years to create To Kill a Mockingbird. How about you ask every other well-known author in the world if they have other drafts of books they have written that tell a different story than what was originally intended? It’s insane to me what people are trying to do to “take away the hype” and in actuality are creating more hype.

  4. I was, and and still am, skeptical about the reasons behind this book’s release for the reasons stated above. That said, if I do read it, I will probably consider it rough draft/manuscript type writing. For all intents and purposes, I was under the understand that Lee only ever wanted to release Mockingbird. So, out of respect to her, that’s the only book she wrote.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.