It’s the big literary news this week – Atticus is a racist.
In Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to the beloved 20th-century classic To Kill a Mockingbird that was just released this Tuesday, Atticus Finch is revealed as a bigot. Really? Atticus, who so honorably defended the black Tom Robinson in a rape trial? Who in fact endangered his family by being willing to stand up for an innocent black man in small-town Alabama? Who has become as much of a cultural icon as a literary character ever could be?
This is rocking the world of many an English teacher.
Atticus was on my list of top 5 boy names for my son, born in March. It’s grown in popularity in recent years, and as a writer/editor/Mockingbird fan I couldn’t resist considering it. In Mockingbird, Atticus is a great father, a great lawyer, an all-around great guy.
So why has Harper Lee (and her publisher) decided to shatter our perceptions of him now after so many years?
Yes, perhaps the 89-year-old author is not making the best decisions. Maybe she just needed the money.
I haven’t read it yet, or even obtained a copy. But maybe it works. Mockingbird is told from the point-of-view of a 6-year-old girl who hero-worships her father. Watchman takes place some 20 years later, and is told by a third-person narrator.
A 6-year-old girl is not a very reliable narrator.
But we bought into it. We wanted to, needed to believe in Atticus the hero. We wanted him as our father. And now he, like so many other heroes before him, has turned out to be deeply flawed.
It’s fiction, but the thing about great fiction is that it teaches us something important about life.
And what about my son? We didn’t name Atticus. My husband, who is not a book nerd and couldn’t care less about this whole conversation, nixed it immediately. Instead we named him Paul, after the grandfather I never met and the apostle who wrote a good portion of the New Testament.
Paul the humble. Paul who was a real hero and not a fictional character, and who was always honest about being deeply flawed, referring to himself as “less than the least of all God’s people” (Eph. 3:8).
Maybe we could learn something from him.