I Almost Named Him Atticus

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.

The day he was born.

The day my son was born.

  1. Alice said:

    Well, I’m going to read this new book at some point … Atticus in some part was based on Harper Lee’s actual father … maybe her father was a racist and maybe she’s willing to admit it now, so many years after he died and so close to her own time of death. But I don’t know this until I read more. Certainly, it would make sense that even a “good” man from the South in that era would be a racist based on today’s measure of racism. Having come from a border state myself, Kentucky, and born in the early 1950s, I can say that most of my relatives were racist, although few if any blatantly so, and they wouldn’t have thought of themselves as racists. Nor do I think of myself as a racist, in fact far from it and doing everything I can in my own work to combat it. But there are many people of color who would call all white people in America racists, because we allow white privilege to go on going on. So maybe Harper Lee is poking us all, and saying, yes, even Atticus was a racist. Well, I’ll have to read it. And meanwhile, although Paul the apostle was a real person, he is also to some extent a literary construct … his writings were certainly edited and re-edited … some of what he is purported to have said or written was undoubtedly written and / or revised by someone else, or some group of someones. I love having Paul as my grandson’s name, and I do love many of Paul’s writings, particularly the passage that includes “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love … ” Futhermore, who is that woman in the photograph taking pictures?!

  2. ursulamarie said:

    I am re-reading Mockingbird now. I should note that I was incorrect about the age of the narrator. Scout is 5 when the story starts, but it spans several years – and she is telling it all in past tense, so she is somewhat older and looking back. Still, I stand by the statement that she may not be a reliable narrator.

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