Despite H.L. Mencken’s legendary 1917 indictment of the South as the “Sahara of the Bozart”, the Southern Renaissance did take place. And in the social and literary milieu of post-Reconstruction South, an Atticus Finch was eminently imaginable. Harper Lee imagined one. And scores of families went on to name their boys Atticus because Lee had given to the civil rights movement a moral centre in this white lawyer who set an example for his two children in Depression-era smalltown Alabama. That was Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). After 1962, Atticus had a face in the popular imagination. By the time the novel became a textbook, Atticus was almost wholly distilled through Gregory Peck.
With the publication this week of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the cries of “childhood ruined” have intensified as the new Atticus, 20-odd years older, is revealed to be worse than a mere “benevolent racist”. The typical benevolent racist would likely take after William Faulkner’s warning, in a letter to a friend, that some rights must be given to blacks before it was too late, since “no tyrant is more oppressive than he who was oppressed till yesterday”. But Atticus 2.0 is disturbingly Klan-ish and scared of the coming flood. Since Watchman was written before Mockingbird but is set after the timeline of the latter novel, is this the real, and more realistic, Atticus? Or an ageing Atticus who has degenerated into bitterness? These are questions for critics, with no handy answers.
The truth may also be this: Lee’s character is fully entitled to embody the segregated South. He was a hero in Mockingbird. Nothing can take that away from him. Even if Atticus is bigoted now, by being a man of his times, denuded by contextual prejudices, he’s more human perhaps — and thus, tragically heroic. The judicious reader will not conflate the two books and the two Atticuses.