Go Set A Watchman: The Trials of Atticus Finch

By Daniel van Voorhis

Gregory Peck Dies at 87

The verdict was in before the book was out. America’s hero, perhaps the purest and most virtuous character in modern literature (and film), Gregory Peck Atticus Finch was a racist.

The day Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee was released I read it (straight through the night). I went back through To Kill A Mockingbird and watched the movie. A cultivated man or woman does not let the media solely form opinions for them, but is rather well read and able to calmly discuss controversial news, literature, and other forms of art. The Man About Town would expect this of you fine readers.

In our unconditioned society (that is, not beholden to any conditions pertaining to belief, style, decorum, etc…) being labeled a racist is probably on a short list with pedophile, puppy assassin, and cigarette smoker as the only things completely unacceptable.

Harper Lee’s newest (but older) sequel (but written before) to To Kill A Mockingbird was released this past Tuesday (July 14th) to immediate controversy. In this book (which was likely written as her first novel, but was completely overhauled to become To Kill A Mockingbird) 26 year old Jean Louis Finch (aka Scout) returns to Maycomb, Alabama from New York to realize that the idealized world of her childhood was not as she saw it as a 9 year old.

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To Kill A Mockingbird has been a staple of high school reading lists, book clubs, and serious conversation at Universities since its publication in 1960. It is rightly considered an American classic. It is told through the eyes of the pugnacious young Scout (the daughter of local attorney) with humor, drama, and a number of climactic scenes with surprising plot twists. I won’t extol it any further – if you haven’t read it – read it now. Spend 3 days worth of time that you would be browsing Facebook, trolling message boards, watching procedural crime dramas, etc… and read the book. It is a fantastic piece of literature as well as a window into the personal crises and tragedy of the 1960’s civil rights movement in the segregated south.

Most of us know it from the movie released two years after the book was published. The movie stars Gregory Peck as the “pure as the driven snow”, the white knight advocate of all that is right and just in the world. Peck won an academy award and The American Film Institute has named Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch as the #1 Hero in the history of American film. They are all well deserved accolades.

Except, it serves us well to realize that in the book he is more complex. He doesn’t willingly take on the controversial case to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, nor does he take any strong anti-segregationist stand. But, in the 1960’s (to the present), polite and middle class America has found in Finch a white man standing up to institutionalized racism. It is easier to preserve our image of a white man as the hero in the Civil Rights Movement than a complex character. Insofar as he is seen as a man upholding the law, defending the innocent, and modeling composure and justice to his young children, he is an American hero.

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However, we have to remember that To Kill A Mockingbird and the image of Atticus was brought to us through the eyes of her doting young daughter.  We see Atticus through the eyes of his daughter: pure as the driven snow and as an advocate of all that is good in the world. There is little nuance because we do not expect that from a loving, and very young daughter. The film, unfortunately, does not clearly portray Atticus as through Scout’s eyes. And thus, those of us who have the habit of conflating book and movie have had a slightly skewed version of Atticus since we first met him on the screen.

In Go Set A Watchman, we also see Atticus and the small town of Maycomb, Alabama through the eyes of Scout. Except she now goes by her given name, Jean Louis, and is a 26 year old New Yorker coming home to visit her father and many of those we met in To Kill A Mockingbird. (As this was the first book written, we are introduced to these characters through a number of flashbacks.)

Just as Harper Lee was born in a small Alabama Town in the 1930’s and then went on to move with the literati and jet set (including Truman Capote) in the more progressive North East, she would have found the depression era south as less than idyllic as she grew older. And, this too is what Jean Louise finds.

But what about Harper Lee ruining one of the last heroes we had by allowing her original book to be released!? If Atticus Finch has a few views on race that we find (righty so) morally repugnant, who among us has any hope of being paragons of racially pure motives and free from the structural and institutional racial issues still present in America today?

Subtle-racism

The humanization of Atticus is not a blow to the story many of us have learned to love. It is a blow to our reading of it as if it was not an idealized view of a good father by a loving daughter.

Is Atticus a racist? If we label people primarily (and sometimes only) by some view they express, maybe. He holds commonly held views about race amongst the white upper middle class in the 50’s. And the beauty of this book is that we are now given the opportunity to see this man through the eyes of a grown daughter, who still loves her father but has to struggle with his imperfections. She gets angry. He digs his heels in. The drama is not a courtroom but a relationship between father and daughter.

The final pages represent some of the most remarkable (albeit flawed) and loving (although sometimes begrudging) images of forgiveness and unconditional love of any book I have read in recent memory.

time to read

I won’t give away any major points of the story. I will recommend it highly. I will ask you to cut out some of the media noise over the book (on both sides of the political spectrum) and read the book for yourself. In it you will find a story of a father and daughter dealing with a clash of ideologies and the struggle to love one another in spite of them. In our age of struggling with clashing ideologies, and with those on display on the internet and in the media it seems many of the critics missed the point, so badly needed today, of the novel entirely.

All The Best,

The Man About Town

Written while listening to the Brodsky Quartet- The New World Quartets of Dvorak (2014)

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6 thoughts on “Go Set A Watchman: The Trials of Atticus Finch

  1. Thanks for writing this review. Hope my response is not too long, but I have not talked to anyone who has read the book.

    Our bookclub read To Kill a Mockingbird last month and Go Set a Watchman is our book for this month. To me one of the good things about Atticus in TKAM is that regardless of his personal feelings he seems to try to do the right thing. I did not see him so differently in GSAW.

    You seem to be able to reconcile the two books better than I. You state, “In To Kill a Mockingbird the image of Atticus was brought to us through the eyes of his doting young daughter”, but I think the narrator in TKAM is both the young Scout and the adult Jean Louise. So, I had a hard time with GSAW, not with the portrayal of the Atticus character, but in Jean Luise feelings towards Atticus and Maycomb which I did not see in the adult Scout of TKAM. Of course maybe the adult Scout of TKAM is the Jean Luise after her talk with her Uncle Jack and her realizing she had to go through all this because she needed to develop her own conscience (which I’m not sure I understand.)

    Anyway…one of the best things about TKAM for me is Scout’s (and I think the adult Scout narrator shows the same) love for her small town and it’s people. She knows and conveys many of their faults, but somehow manages not to be condescending of the town or the people. In TKAM she sees their faults and for the most part loves them anyway. I prefer that Scout to the seemingly superior, bitter Jean Luise in GSAW. And although I agree the last pages did contain love and forgiveness, for me (at least upon first read) it was not enough and a little forced considering her harsh feelings throughout the rest of the book.

    I have not seen much media noise about the book besides a blurb about the racist Atticus of GSAW. But change is difficult, and Atticus and the people of Maycomb in GSAW are shown adjusting to this change.

    One last comment. I also had a hard time reconciling the Calpernia of TKAM and the Calpernia of GSAW.

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  2. Elizabeth, I think that the “adult” Scout in TKAM isn’t that clear- she seems to be able to see the big picture and some “adult” details in the story, such that this isn’t an unrealistic childhood narrative. But the “grown up” scout in TKAM is much more guide than critic and observer.
    Now- these books, I don’t believe, were both meant to be published, and so inconsistencies are present- but I think the vantage point of Scout as generally different in the two books give us the ability to see more continuity.
    Because these are two books, the same story, but different (man, this makes reviewing both books hard) the character of Cal is almost a different character in the two books, I agree.
    As to the “noise” maybe it is primarily the newspapers, websites and magazines I frequent- it seemed that no one could just talk about the book- but rather Atticus’ racism (or segregationist positions). Nevertheless, the final scenes, and how Atticus treats Scout (and vice versa) at the end is really beautiful (but too short)

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  3. Living in the South for the Last 15 years as a Damn Yankee, I really appreciate the acceptance of the complex relationship with sin, Racism, and real people. I hope everyone in the North takes the time to read this…it will go a long way in race relations for both sides.

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  4. So I was curious about the media noise, googled and read some articles. One of the reviews caused me to wonder if I had misread a portion of the book. I went back to re-read the section, and although the author of the article did misquote the book, it made me realize I also had assumed something that was not clearly stated. The section mentioned (this might be giving away a major point of the story, so don’t feel obligated to answer) is when Jean Louise goes to see Calpurnia. I now see the simple statement Calpurnia shakes her head is left ambiguous. I wonder how you guys read this, or if you realized that it was intentionally left unclear.

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    1. Okay never mind, I now see that I might be the only one who would consider you can shake your head yes or no. I guess the correct phrases are nod your head yes, and shake your head no. So, I now have a new understanding of the passage.

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