It was kind of a big deal, and people really weren’t happy. News had broken about the revision of Atticus Finch.
Now before I go any further I need to say that I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. At some point I do intend to, but I’m reading several other books at the minute and I’d prefer not to add yet another novel.
But I want to talk about something that I don’t think requires reading the novel. As many of you may know, shortly before Go Set a Watchman released, it came out that Atticus Finch–the champion of racial justice in To Kill a Mockingbird–was rewritten as a racist. The reaction was immediate and angry. Phrases like, “my hero was destroyed,” or, “my role model has been taken away” were common. Reviews described the book as “the toppling of idols.” Critics speculated about Harper Lee’s intentions.
In short, people weren’t happy.
The whole thing struck me as quite intriguing. To Kill a Mockingbird has been an extraordinarily successful book, and the characters are near and dear to many people. As evidenced by the reaction, many looked up to Atticus Finch and his staunch, unflinching defense of the humanity of Jim, the accused African-American. His ultimately unsuccessful fight for justice was inspirational and heroic.
Others, commenting on the controversy, have taken a different approach. They’ve argued that people need to move on and realize that it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “He’s just a character,” the argument goes. “He isn’t actually a champion of racial justice. We need to focus our attention on real issues, not on fictional characters. Let’s be angry about real injustice and support real heroes, not fictional accounts of injustice or fictional heroes.”
I think that argument betrays a bit of a misunderstanding about the importance of literature. The argument assumes that literature isn’t true, that stories are just myths, cleverly devised lies. At best, they’re escapist fantasies. But as I’ve argued before, stories are true. While the literal details of To Kill a Mockingbird might not be, the larger story is. There is a champion for the oppressed and the needy. There is someone who will fight for justice in the face of a society intent on looking the other way. He may not be named Atticus Finch, but we all long for this person.
Maybe that’s what caused all the outrage. People wanted a champion of justice, and they got one in Atticus. When that champion was taken away, their longing came right back to the surface, betraying the fact that Atticus never fulfilled their longing, he merely papered over it.
But to say that the reaction to Atticus’ rewriting is insignificant or silly is, I think, mistaken. What it shows is a fundamental desire people have. We want Jim to be given justice and set free and when he isn’t we’re heartbroken. Our longing for justice wasn’t fulfilled. We want Atticus to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves, and now that he isn’t, people are heartbroken.
It displays a simple fact. That deep down, at the core of our being, we know the world isn’t how it should be. Some part of us longs for something better, for something beyond the evil and injustice around us. We want another Atticus.