Human, All Too Human: The De-Evolution of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman

Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird are aghast at the revelation that Atticus Finch, the noble protagonist of  that celebrated book, becomes a segregationist and Klansman in his dotage in Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman:

Michiko Kakutani, in her review for the NYT, echoes many people’s sentiments when she says,

The depiction of Atticus in “Watchman” makes for disturbing reading, and for “Mockingbird” fans, it’s especially disorienting. Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father, who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion, has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion. How could the saintly Atticus — described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in “Mockingbird” — suddenly emerge as a bigot? Suggestions about changing times and the polarizing effects of the civil rights movement seem insufficient when it comes to explaining such a radical change, and the reader, like Scout, cannot help feeling baffled and distressed.


The most obvious explanation for the disconnect between these two versions of Atticus Finch is that Go Set a Watchman is an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and essentially takes place in a different, parallel universe (in the Go Set a Watchman universe, Tom Robinson was acquitted, for example). Assuming there is any real connection between Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus’ about face can be easily explained by the fact that the former takes place some time in the mid-1950s, when many white Southerns were convinced that “outside agitators” were trying to bring down their “way of life.” While the Atticus of the 1930s might have thought that racial equality, achieved in some far off future, was a good thing in theory, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he would have been ready or willing to accept the in you face nature of Civil Rights protests or that he would have necessarily thought that “separate but equal” was a bad idea.

Something that gets downplayed a lot these days is just how radical the Civil Rights Movement was at the time that it was actually going on. For many Americans, Southern and otherwise, racial integration was a “communist” idea and saying one was a member of the NAACP was considered worse than saying one was a member of the Communist Party. At that time, a “racial moderate” in the South was someone who didn’t think that the public schools should be closed en masse just to prevent school desegregation (this actually happened in some areas, the most infamous case being the closure of the Prince Edward County public school system in 1959: Opposing “massive resistance” didn’t necessarily mean one was in favor of integration, just that one didn’t want the entire public school system shut down to spite black people.

But I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed by the Go Tell a Watchman version of Atticus. To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t my favorite book by a long shot (I’m not a fan of the fact that the black characters only exist to teach the white characters lessons, but I suppose that’s the only way it could be in a book with a child narrator in the Jim Crow South), but like many readers, Atticus represented to me the ideal of someone doing the right thing in the face of insurmountable odds. It’s kind of like when my mom saw my old third grade teacher that I really liked at the supermarket, where she was loading up on cartons of Marlboros. Granted, finding out that one of your favorite teachers is a chain smoker isn’t the same as finding out that your father/favorite literary character has become a bitter racist old coot, but the feelings of disillusionment are the same. Or as Nietzsche said, “Human, all too human.”

The real question I have about Go Set a Watchman is whether we get to see any mention of a grown-up Dill, who is usually considered to be a fictionalized version of Lee’s childhood friend and fellow writer, Truman Capote. Has Dill already become the enfant terrible of the “ladies who lunch” set or has he alienated them by writing a salacious roman a clef about their not-so secret scandals, as the real-life Capote did with his short story La Côte Basque?  I suppose there’s always fan fiction.