Atticus Finch isn’t a real person. In case you forgot. But many people are treating him as such, and with some dismay, as a consequence of the publication of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman.
This novel was actually written before the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Atticus seems like a saintly figure. Which he was in the eyes of his then six year old daughter.
Harper Lee now reportedly lives in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair-bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. It’s not clear that she even knows that this novel, written so long ago, has actually been published.
There’s also some doubt about when it was actually authored. As Maureen Corrigan notes in her review on NPR:
Go Set a Watchman is a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically, beginning with its fishy origin story. Allegedly, it’s a recently discovered first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m suspicious: It reads much more like a failed sequel. There are lots of dead patches in Go Set a Watchman, pages where we get long explanations of, say, the fine points of the Methodist worship service.
In any case, Go Set a Watchman is about the return of twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch (“Scout” in To Kill a Mockinbird) to Maycomb, Alabama from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns that her father is really a not-so-closeted racist. By all acounts, the character of Atticus was based on her father. Her own homecoming from New York when her father was old had a similar impact on her as it does here on Scout. And us.
Such are racial sensitivities these days that even disappointing revelations about a fictional character have the power to damage our national psyche.