To Kill an Atticus

Jul
28
2015
by
Lynne McTaggart
/
0
Comments

I’m one of those people profoundly saddened by the publication of Go Set a Watchman, not simply because I think everyone will benefit from it but Harper Lee, but also because it defaces an important and enduring hero who has given America hope over the years even during its worst moments.

It saddens me that Lee’s lawyer, her agent and her publishers preferred to put first the prospect of earning millions over literary judgment or their charge’s literary reputation.

I’m one of those people profoundly saddened by the publication of Go Set a Watchman, not simply because I think everyone will benefit from it but Harper Lee, but also because it defaces an important and enduring hero who has given America hope over the years even during its worst moments.

It saddens me that Lee’s lawyer, her agent and her publishers preferred to put first the prospect of earning millions over literary judgment or their charge’s literary reputation.

I’ve just finished reading Watchman. It was only a draft, rather than a polished book– one reason it wasn’t accepted all those years ago by the publishers – and it did not undergo any editing this time around. It had a more complicated aim than Mockingbird: to examine what happens when a young woman returns home and finally sees the father she formally idolized for all his flaws, in the midst of the tumultuous upheavals in civil rights fomenting in the late 1950s.

Ultimately it may have become the more complex book, but it desperately needed editing. The point of view switches; the characters are not well drawn; the action often stalls; the writing is far more pedestrian than To Kill a Mockingbird, although in places, you can still see the wit and sparkle she demonstrated in her first book.

For many writers like Lee (and Thomas Wolfe), writing is an alchemical process between editor and writer, and the writing of Mockingbird required three and a half years of painstaking back and forth between Lee and her editor.

Watchman did not have that –after all, it was the book that was universally rejected before Lee’s editor saw the potential in flashbacks of the main character’s childhood and asked Lee to make that the book that eventually became Mockingbird. The original shows off Lee’s writing at its worse and will lead many to claim that Mockingbird was a work of collaboration, particularly since Lee tried and failed several times to finish and published another book – until now.

But what saddens me most is the new portrayal of Atticus Finch in Watchman. In Mockingbird, he was a cipher, an important change agent, prepared to stand up to the entire town in order to give the black field hand Tom Robinson equal justice under the law. I have just re-read the book again, and the power of it, above all, is its message of tolerance and hope, even in the face of overwhelming odds, even though, in fact, Atticus loses his case and Robinson gets shot.

In Watchman, Atticus is 72, arthritic and a member of the ‘Community Council’ which opposes the Supreme Court’s ruling on civil rights. Atticus is not a hero, but someone willing to be seen to compromise in order to allow civil rights to proceed in slow motion and locally, rather than being forced through by federal legislation, as he considers Negroes ‘children’ with primitive desires who haven’t been allowed to grow up.

And Tom Robinson wasn’t wrongly accused of raping Mayella Ewell; it turns out they had consensual sex.

The reason why heroes like Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch resonate so deeply with us is that principled people willing to avoid compromise and to stand up against the forces of power or money, or indeed against popular opinion, are so thin on the ground.

When considering all the crises we now face on so many fronts, the sheer enormity of the problems now before us in every sector of our lives, we feel both frustrated by the inability of our leaders to solve them and unable to fix anything ourselves. Most of us throw up our hands and cry, “What can I do? What can any one person do to change anything?”

This fear grows out of the mistaken notion that the crises in our midst can only be addressed from the top down. But the change that is necessary — the one that will truly solve most problems in our individual lives, our society and indeed our world — is not just a change of policy, a new law, a new president or a tighter regulation, but a fundamental change of heart.

The change required now must come from the bottom up — from ordinary individuals making individual changes that ultimately cause a contagion of change in their neighborhoods and workplaces.

In short, from people willing to be heroes, to step outside their comfortable little lives to unflinchingly stand for something, whether that is against racism, injustice, corruption or anything else.

And that’s why we need the original uncompromising Atticus, rather a version of him cut down to human size.

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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