GO SET A WATCHMAN
The novel To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, is the story of Atticus Finch, a single father who practiced law with a profound sense of right and wrong, and is one which most of us have read. We see Atticus as the tall, strong, yet mild mannered demi-god, played in the movies by the handsome Gregory Peck. The character inspired many to pursue a legal career; and others would strive to be like him. A few years back, the ABA journal undertook a poll of its members in an attempt to determine the 25 most popular fictional attorneys in literature and film. Atticus Finch was not eligible, since it was believed he would receive so many votes that the remaining list of 25 would be difficult to fill. Presumably, there was no doubt that he was by far the most influential, famous and beloved fictional lawyer we had occasion to meet.
Until now??? This summer, the novel Go Set A Watchman was released amongst a fanfare of publicity and secrecy. The information that was disseminated indicated that the book was written before Mockingbird, but Watchman was allegedly rejected at first writing by the publisher, and lost for years, only to be discovered by Lee's attorney a short time ago. Written first, the novel is actually a sequel to Mockingbird and follows the story of Jean Louise "Scout" on a summer vacation to Maycomb, while in her late 20s.
In Mockingbird, Atticus is portrayed as the epitome of the perfect lawyer, championing the cause of an innocent black man who is on trial for rape in a community where racial bigotry is on display with reckless abandon. Even though the trial is lost, the reader is right there with Atticus, desperately feeling the injustice of a system that condemns an innocent man solely due to the color of his skin. From the date it was first published, To Kill a Mockingbird has been controversial, both banned and beloved by countless over the last five decades. And somehow, Harper Lee was successful in elevating Atticus to hero status in the minds of many for decades.
This is no small feat. We continue to love Atticus despite the fact that in the end of Mockingbird, he is portrayed as a man who, understanding the shortcomings of the judicial system, circumvents its procedure, and participates in a cover up to protect "Boo" Radley, a mentally fragile man who saved Atticus' children, but wouldn't be strong enough to survive the judicial process, even if eventually declared not guilty. Atticus even uses his son in an attempt to deflect suspicion from Boo. We should be incensed by both his behavior as a lawyer and as a parent. But, when the sheriff decides to accept a version of the facts likely known to be inaccurate, sparing all from the rigors and dysfunction of the legal system, we breathe a collective sigh of relief. Even those of us who have taken an oath to uphold the law are relieved to see Atticus accept this version, clearly believing that the ends justify the means. We have no trouble allowing Atticus to act as judge and jury, since we believe it is the right thing to do. Somehow, as only the best of authors can do, Harper Lee has spun a tale that permits us to disregard what we have been sworn to uphold, believing that Atticus is perfect, better than the rest, someone who serves as an inspiration and role model. Most readers become victims, not even recognizing the very clear contradiction in Atticus’ behavior. No matter how many times one reads the story, we fall prey to Ms. Lee's trick. And Atticus remains the beloved hero.
So what has Ms. Lee done in Watchman? Does she slowly and meticulously chip away at the pedestal? Perhaps yes, as bits of older Atticus' persona become unveiled to Scout. Is she reminding us that only innocent children are allowed to have heroes? Walking in the shoes of an adult Scout, we see innocence dissolve, along with her illusion of heroism. As adults, is Lee telling us to see a man or woman for what they are? Has she returned Atticus to us as a man no different from the person we, as lawyers, sat next to on the first day of class in law school? Only now he is weary from a system that never really worked to his satisfaction...a system that he must manipulate in order for it to work in society. Has Ms. Lee taken away the hero she gave to us five decades earlier?
In Watchman, we see Atticus as an old, fatigued man in poor health. He no longer champions causes. Scout, and even her surrogate mother and caregiver, Calpurnia, see Atticus as a different man--a man Scout is prepared to abandon for life. Atticus' opinions appear in vast contradiction to what the audience expects after last viewing his valiant efforts representing Tom Robinson. His reaction to the NAACP and statements about the role of blacks in politics can make a reader shout in horror, or at the very least, squirm with an awkward uneasiness while sitting in a comfortable reading chair. So, we ask again, what has Ms. Lee done? Has she taken Atticus from us, leaving us disheartened and lonely, much like a child saying goodbye to his security blanket?
After reading Watchman, seeing Atticus as less than a hero is inevitable. Whether Ms. Lee intended this or not, isn't known. But what we see is a man who loves his daughter, has decided what is best for his community and plans to shepherd it along in the way he sees best. Has he changed? Maybe Atticus is the same man he always was; and what has changed is our perspective of him. We now see a man who is not perfect, who holds opinions that are unpopular and rejected by many. His efforts to manipulate the system are met with sharp disagreement, not cheered as before. No matter how hard you try, if Atticus was your hero, it will be difficult to reconcile the portrayal in Watchman. For this reader, it was a story left with the trailing thought "Say it ain't so...."
Bonnie Coleman, a partner with the firm, teaches Law & Literature as an Adjunct Professor at Valparaiso University School of Law.
Hodges and Davis, P.C. - September 2015