Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Lesser Atticus Finch Jumps off Page

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Lesser Atticus Finch Jumps off Page

Article excerpt

On the same day that the Confederate battle flag - the preeminent symbol of racial intolerance during the civil rights era -was removed from its place of honor at the South Carolina Capitol, the first review of Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" was published.

The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wasted no time expressing her shock that in the first version of the novel that was eventually released as "To Kill a Mockingbird," beloved father and enlightened rural Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch was a bigot.

Ms. Kakutani's dismay was echoed on social media as word spread of Atticus' turn from "face" to "heel" in studio wrestling terms. Because the book wouldn't be available to the general public for days, we had only the analysis of a few privileged critics to go by.

"The depiction of Atticus in 'Watchman' makes for disturbing reading, and for 'Mockingbird' fans, it's especially disorienting," Ms. Kakutani writes. "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 . suddenly emerge as a bigot?"

So after half a century being celebrated as our most endearing symbol of liberal paternalism, Atticus Finch is suddenly revealed in the pages of this previously unknown manuscript as (drum roll, please) ... a typical Southern gentleman of the times.

Instead of the anachronistic saint of "Mockingbird" whose progressive ideas about race in backwater Alabama in the 1930s could only have existed in science fiction novels, the Atticus of "Watchman" is a flawed, white Southerner filled with racial anxieties that will be familiar to bigots and xenophobes.

In other words, in the original version of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Harper Lee portrayed Atticus the way a lawyer of his race and class in the deep South during the 1950s would have actually comported himself. "Watchman," according to early reviews, is about the tension between a grown-up Jean Louise "Scout" Finch and her elderly father as their deeply racist Alabama town resists inroads by the insurgent civil rights movement. …

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