I have been trying for about a week to write a post about Harper Lee’s new/old/real/fake book, Go Set a Watchman. Each time I’ve tried, however, I’ve come up short. My writing has gone off the rails.
Why has this happened? What is so unique about this topic that it’s caused my mind to keep looping in search of possible resting places for days?
Yes, of course I have always revered Atticus Finch. In many ways, I have loved him as if he we were real. To me, he is a rosy but distant childhood memory, a trusted adult who was mannered in the face of rudeness and intelligent in the face of ignorance, with crinkly eyes and patient, thoughtful ways and words.
I met him when I was 12 and he made me feel safe because he was in the world, making it better in ways that I didn’t completely understand or even want to. He couldn’t keep Tom Robinson alive, but he could stand up beside him, and in doing so he taught his children important lessons about how the world was and should/could be.
From the perspective of the adult teacher I have become, Atticus is the father who knows best but doesn’t make his children feel bad for not knowing as much, or knowing the things that matter most. He is the champion of social and racial justice, he is the dependable family man. He is the opposite of Huck’s abusive father; he is not kin to the wealth-thirsty Gatsby; he is not cowardly like the secretly passionate Arthur Dimmesdale.
I think I can’t decide on what I want to say about Go Set a Watchman because, adult or child, I simply don’t want to think about Atticus Finch in any other way than the way I already think about him. And that’s got to be ok. Just because another book is out featuring this character doesn’t mean the original book is obsolete, or the lessons therein discredited. It doesn’t matter that Lee herself may have written this second book any more than it would if another author had done the same.
For me, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird will always be exactly himself, as presented within the pages of that book. Just as the Mona Lisa will always smile at some viewers and frown at others, we get to decide what we see in a single work of art.