If you’ve been vacationing in some remote corner of Antarctica, you may have missed the release of “Go Set a Watchman,” a book that publishers are claiming is the sequel to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But in my corner of the world—one that has Internet access, a cushy armchair, and more than a few friends who love books as much as I do—it’s big news.
Perhaps even bigger news is that in “Go Set a Watchman,” Atticus Finch is revealed as a racist and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I never intended to read the book, even before the reviews came out. I found it a little too convenient that after 55 years of maintaining she would never write another novel, this early draft written before “To Kill a Mockingbird” is being released—unedited—after Lee’s sister who handled her legal and financial affairs died last year. Even her publisher, Hugh Van Dusen, acknowledges no one spoke directly to Lee about permission to print the manuscript, because “She’s very deaf and going blind…and it’s difficult to call her nursing home.”
Still, learning Atticus is a racist in “Go Set a Watchman” hurt.
Like many, I grew up looking at Atticus Finch as the best kind of brave, a man who risked his life and his children’s to fight injustice and to battle racial inequalities. He knew the whole of humanity was at stake…not just the humans that he loved. At some point, I stopped thinking of him as a character and instead as a person I knew and admired. And I wasn’t alone. A friend of mine even named his son Atticus, although the rest of us thought: Really? Atticus? Even a boy named Scout would have a better chance of surviving middle school.
I fall in love with many characters—and, as a writer, I do my best to create some that readers might engage with despite (or, maybe, because of) their flaws—but still I was surprised how much online columnist Albert Burneko’s article “Hey, You Don’t Have to Read Harper Lee’s New Book” resonated with me. Burneko writes, “The Atticus you have known belongs to you; you created him. Some of your raw materials—just some of them—came from Harper Lee’s words, some of them came from your own life and experiences, and some of them (probably, let’s be real) came from Gregory Peck’s performance in the wonderful 1962 film adaptation. You combined them in your head and made an Atticus, and you know what he’s like.”
As a person who thinks about words and writing and literary works carefully (and obsessively), I was so intrigued by this statement. I created Atticus Finch? I never saw the film, but whatever. Of course, I created him. We all did. Lee’s character Atticus is no longer hers. He’s all of ours now. That’s the gift that a good book gives you…a connection with a character that transcends the page. As Burneko continues, “If Harper Lee is saying this Atticus is a Klan-rallying bigot…she might be wrong! She literally does not know him as well as you do. She knows him only slightly better than an absentee sperm donor knows the in vitro-fertilized child raised by someone else.”
A strong statement to be sure, but are writers metaphorical absentee sperm donors, as Burneko suggests? And are we, as readers, the ones who carry and raise these fictional children? And, if we can so freely—and fully—adopt the creative work of another, what does that mean for us as readers…and as writers?
I haven’t come to any conclusions regarding the moral and artistic implications of the way we inhabit stories. It is what it is, I suppose. But as a creative writing teacher, I often remind students there’s only so much “control” writers have over even their own words. You can struggle over their selection. You can respect their power and choose them with precision and purpose. But the reader also brings herself to the page. Words—like all forms of communication—don’t exist in a vacuum. Once they’re shared, they’re filtered by the reader and her worldview and experiences.
Say what you like and say it well, but in the end, the words no longer belong to you. The person who reads them shapes them as she wishes…whether she means to or not.
I’m no exception. Lee may have created Atticus to be a voice for justice and equality, but I made him into a role model. I needed “my” Atticus as a young girl growing up in a small town in the 70s and I need him now when almost daily we hear of hate crimes and racial injustices. I need to continue to see Atticus as someone who can point to the evil of this world and risk everything he loves to combat it, even as he knows he will likely fail. I need to believe that I—that all of us—can be a voice in the dark that just might make a difference.
As Lee’s Atticus once said in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.”
True, but it is possible to avoid meeting this new Atticus and I suppose that’s just one more reason why I won’t be reading “Go Set a Watchman.”
Laurie Uttich an instructor of creative writing in the English Department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.