by: Michael Shields ((Header art is by the digital artist, MonkyMonk14.))
Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ redefines Atticus Finch, and in doing so, exhausts the ‘magick’ of his being….
When I opened my front door yesterday morning, The New York Times, as it always does, sat upon my brown, worn welcome mat. It isn’t uncommon for the information it portions out to be distressing. In fact, this is all too often the case, and this day was no different. But the latest headlines weren’t ringing the alarm about ISIS or revealing to Westerners accounts of another devastating refugee crisis. No, the news was of a different nature. On the front page and above the fold, adjacent to a picture of the Women’s US National Team being showered in ticker tape, were words written in boldface which stole my breath: “Kind Hero of ‘Mockingbird’ is Recast as Racist in New Book: Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ Redefines Atticus Finch.”
The reveal of a fictional character as racist becoming front page news is uncanny. But this is Atticus Finch, the hero of one of the most important novels in American history, To Kill a Mockingbird. As the article so aptly points out, people throughout the country have named their kids after him, and have chosen to go to law school because they were inspired by him. Atticus undoubtedly inspired me. Profoundly. He was an enlightened idealist. Someone who fought for justice and what is right even when the risks were lofty. He was a capable father, a shrewd lawyer, and a decent man. Now, in Harper Lee’s latest novel Go Set a Watchman, Atticus isn’t just a racist, but he is exposed as the sort of man who would attend clan meetings. This is wild. It’s devastating. It’s as if I were to find out that Derek Jeter was a pedophile, or that President Obama is on the cusp of pushing through a trade agreement that will give enormous power to corporations who value revenue stream over what is good for our Earth and those who live upon it. Oh, wait…
Fictional characters inspire us. And in that way they become real, as the effect of their “existence” is authentic. There is a theory known as Chaos Magick that intrigues me. The theory states that belief is a tool. That is, believing in something awards that entity an active and magical power. And it does not matter what you believe in (“flexibility of belief”), but rather what you do with that belief. Chaos Magick is far more complex than I will delve into here, and there are many variations on the theory, derived from such authors as Peter Carroll or Phil Hine. But what it essentially boils down to (for me) is that it is inconsequential what you choose to affect and shape you (Christianity, Atheism, Buddhism, Superheroes, Atticus Finch, etc.). What truly matters is how you allow these ideals to affect you, and subsequently, how you react in response. Chaos Magick focuses on the outcome, not the symbol, and in the case of Atticus Finch, he represented a degree of virtuosity which impacted deeply and on a visceral level, exemplifying what a person could be. What good, in fact, was. And now, upon the release of Watchman, this has all changed.
I am not dismissing Harper Lee’s new novel. Not in the least. The novel, which takes place in the 1950s (notably around the time of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision), finds Scout returning home for a visit from her new home, New York City. When she arrives to Maycomb, Alabama, she is forced to confront the realization that her beloved father, and also her longtime boyfriend, Henry Clinton, have views that far from mirror her own. To her (and the readers) astonishment, a 26-year-old Scout must face the fact that people in her life that she loves have obtuse viewpoints on race and segregation. And in this way the novel is important. Through confrontations with small-town bigotry and hatred, there is much insight to be gained. This idea, that ignorance exists and we must learn to meet it and then resist it, is relevant and in this exercise we can grow in our understanding of bigotry and how to cope with it. And in Watchman we find a fully realized Jean Louise Finch, a grown, astute and resolute woman. But it comes as no surprise to readers that Scout would grow into a strong, and ultimately progressive and spirited, young woman. This was expected. But what is surprising, and hurtful, is reading Atticus Finch ask, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
I can almost hear Atticus Finch, like Charles Barkley before him (the fact that I can now make that comparison appalls me!) proclaiming, “I am not a role model.” Atticus may never have asked to be revered, but it is indeed the case. The Chaos Magick theory, in its results based archetype, now finds the effects of our beliefs in Atticus Finch manifesting themselves distressingly. Instead of harvesting his righteousness into real and authentic powerful action, his “being” now generates pessimism. Now, Atticus Finch stands as a symbol of the darkness that can hide in plain sight. Now, we are lead once again to question the legitimacy of what on the surface appears honorable. Now, we are left dejected and deceived.
Atticus Finch stood for something. He wasn’t only one of the more inspiring and unforgettable characters in Literature, but in Film as portrayed by Gregory Peck. I became awash with chills as I read his words, and absorbed his idealistic, logical and powerful thoughts. And I became overcome with emotion when Peck’s Atticus rattled the courthouses walls with truth and awareness. I could never imagine anything ever affecting the impact of Atticus on my thoughts and beliefs. But in knowing that he could exclaim that “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” I can never view what came before the same. And with that, some of the ‘magick’ that made the world a better place wafts into air, and disappears, as if it never existed in the first place.
The release of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is extremely problematic. It seems quite likely that it’s something author never would have wanted (I know she’s not dead, but there are strong suggestions that her current condition, coupled with unscrupulous acquaintances, led to this decision). She quite staunchly avoided publishing it or anything else for many decades, and the timing of this is highly suspect.
As for the book itself, despite the fact that everyone is touting it as a “new” book, it is nothing of the sort. It was, in fact, written before ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and she wrote her famous work based on the feedback.
To me, TKAM is canon, and GSAW is not. I’m not sure I’ll read it, given that I suspect the author would never have wanted me to.
Thank you for the comment Justin. I agree with you in full in regards to TKAM being canon. And it is fascinating that GSAW is seeing the light of day now. Something seems a touch off with that, and as you say “suspect.” I am very curious to see how it is received in the coming week.
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