Atticus Finch’s Identity Crisis
When Harper Lee’s iconic and celebrated work of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was followed in 2015 by Go Set a Watchman, a literary controversy was born. Did, for instance, the publishing house and Harper Lee’s attorney conspire to exploit the aging author in rushing the second book to the press? What happened to change Atticus so fundamentally from the first novel? The resources I have drawn upon here are not restricted to those in agreement with my thesis; I am also pursuing resources representing opposing viewpoints. By focusing on some of the legitimate academic debates surrounding these works, the reader will develop a better understanding of the literary concerns presented here. Since both the characterization and dialogue of Go Set a Watchman are far inferior to Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, the new work should not ultimately define the rich legacy of either its author or characters--nor actors such as Gregory Peck. The books should be read as individual and distinct; no other approach can reconcile their significant differences.
As I will demonstrate, Harper Lee’s own writing process plays an important role in our understanding of these differences, and this will be discussed in greater detail later within this essay.
This academic analysis will first explore the striking dissimilarities between the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird and the character of the same name from Go Set a Watchman before examining other deficiencies of Harper Lee’s second novel. Before the conclusion, important insights regarding Go Set a Watchman will be highlighted from Gregory Peck’s own children, Cecilia and Stephen. After all, when the reader evokes a picture in his mind of Atticus Finch, Gregory Peck’s iconic portrayal from To Kill a Mockingbird likely comes to mind. Whether it is in the courtroom or standing alone in front of the jail as the townspeople arrive to murder the unjustly incarcerated Tom Robinson, his stature, in one sense, seems bigger than life. In another, more personal way, however, Atticus may deeply remind us of others personally known to us who likewise made sacrifices for the sake of the standing up for what was right. In an age where revisionists seem intent on tearing down any Caucasian male who committed an act of altruistic good within history or literature, there is a sense in which Atticus is more than a caricature of virtue; he is important to the reader, because we have seen dimensions of him in others--people we love and admire deeply. Both those with revisionist tendencies as well as those subscribing to deconstructive theory may be quick to approve of an attack upon this hero of American literature. Sometimes, however, good characters are also the authentic ones.
In starting our comparison of Atticus’ portrayal between the two novels, a good place to begin is this telling courtroom excerpt from To Kill a Mockingbird, since it so strikingly highlights the differences between the two distinct versions of Atticus. This passage begins with Atticus’ powerful declaration concerning the guilt of Mayella Ewell in her breaking of “rigid and time honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with.” (Lee, 231) Atticus continues in his identification of Mayella as the guilty party—a character almost worthy of pity--in one of the novel’s most compelling scenes.
She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance, but I cannot pity her: she is white. She knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were greater than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it. She persisted, as her subsequent reaction is something every one of us have known at one time or another. She did something every child has done—she tried to put the evidence of her offense away from her. But in this case she was no child hiding contraband: she struck out at her victim—of necessity she must put him away from her presence, from this world. She must destroy the evidence of her offense. (Lee, 231)
The passage dramatizes Atticus’ willingness to rise to the passionate defense of Tom Robinson, but it further highlights his selflessness with regards to the very public nature of this defense. He could have proceeded half-heartedly, for instance, which would have likely preserved his reputation within the community. Instead, he gave the defense his utmost, and in so doing he jeopardized his reputation with the townspeople of Maycomb, Alabama. Further, as Peter Zwick put it in “Rethinking Atticus Finch,” the character of “Atticus is more than a Jack McCoy, Michael Clayton or Elle Woods. Atticus is a reason some people become lawyers, and once they become lawyers, Atticus is the person many aspire to be” (Zwick, 1351).
If we turn now to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, a tellingly representative excerpt from this book is an argument that Jean Louise and her father engage in towards the novel’s conclusion.
Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the
South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be
Another Reconstruction. Would you want your state government run
by people who don’t know how to run ‘em? Do you want this town
run by—now wait a minute—Willoughby’s a crook, we know that,
but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby?
Zeebo’d probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone
of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re
outnumbered, you know. (Lee, 246)
It is difficult to believe that the honorable Atticus within To Kill a Mockingbird is the same bigot described in Go Set a Watchman. Most critical academic discussions concerning the second novel take an approach similar to that offered by Bethe Dufresne in “Atticus Unmasked.” That is, critics accept the latter work as representing the true and bigoted heart of Atticus. (Dufresne, 24) Jean Louise is able to see through her father, Dufresne would argue, because greater maturity and sophistication has given her a clearer vision concerning people like Atticus. Likewise, Allen Mendenhall takes a similar position in “Children Once, Not Forever: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Growing Up.” Mendenhall observes that the reader shares a degree of fault for reading more into the character of Atticus Finch than To Kill a Mockingbird’s text truly supported; we believed what we wanted to believe. (Mendenhall, online) In “Scout Comes Home Again” by Robert Brinkmyer, however, a more plausible explanation resonates with the reader.
It certainly could be argued that the characters of Go Set a Watchman
are not the same characters, other than in name, as those in Mockingbird. One could reasonably maintain, particularly if Watchman is Mockingbird’s abandoned first draft, that in revising her manuscript into a new novel, Lee created an entirely new set of characters as well, whatever, similarities those characters share with their previous manifestations. Adding some credence to this perspective is the fact that events in Mockingbird as they’re recalled in Watchman don’t always match up perfectly. (Brinkmeyer, 217)
Some literary critics reconcile the two versions of Atticus as representing the changing, or maturing perspective of Jean Louise. Unfortunately, events and characters aren’t the only things that fail to “match up” between the two novels. The writing style of the second book has been widely described as inferior to that of Mockingbird. Critics have suggested that the plot is poorly constructed, and that it reads as unfocused or wandering. Robert Brinkmeyer described “its prose as mostly pedestrian.” (Brinkmyer, 218) The dialogue has also been criticized for its amateurish quality.
No one else has quite described this in such delightfully scathing terms as William Giraldi did within “Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Should Not Have Been Published.” His observations further support Brinkmeyer’s points referenced above.
Ponderous and lurching, haltingly confected, the novel plods along in search of a plot, tranquilizes you with vast fallow patches, with deadening dead zones, with onslaughts of cliché and dialogue made of pamphleteering monologue or else eye-rolling chitchat. You are confronted by entire pages of her uncle Jack’s oracular babble, and you much machete through the bracken of listless, throw-away prose in order to get to a memorable turn of phrase. “Jean Louise smiled to herself” and “Jean Louise laughed aloud” and then “Jean Louise shook her head” before “Jean Louise’s eyebrows flickered.” Someone has “green envy,” and someone else “bored stiff.” Soon, “Henry looked at her” and then “she looked at him” and then “Hank stirred” before “she stirred.” Then “she bit her tongue” right before “she held her tongue.” Characters raise their “eyebrows” so often you have to question how their foreheads turn to trampolines… (Giraldi, online)
Additional critics, like T.M Doran in “Why the Watchman Doesn’t Add Up to Me,” have argued that the author’s own careful writing style makes it extraordinarily unlikely that she would have knowingly approved of Go Set a Watchman’s publication. (Doran, 217) This further supports Giraldi’s criticisms of style and quality of prose, and it only adds to the growing stack of serious concerns regarding the publication of Harper Lee’s second novel. It is common knowledge that the reclusive novelist was a perfectionist in her writing, and this trait is also incongruent with the author’s decision to release an unpolished and unrefined novel. As recorded by Kathleen Jacobs in “Writing Advice and Harper Lee,” which appeared in the Charleston-Gazette-Mail, Harper Lee responded to a school teacher’s June 1995 request for writing advice for her students with an admonition that “if you want to write, WRITE. Writing is a craft you can only master by doing. Don’t “fall in love” with you what you write to the extent that you cannot edit it. You must be to a great degree objective about your work…” (Jacobs, online) A similar Harper Lee quote is referenced in Joe Nocera’s “The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud.” “I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing … is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this — the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.” (Nocera, online) There is a disconnect or implausibility, then, between what we know of her work ethic and personality of Harper Lee and the publishing house’s claim to have received permission to publish Go Set a Watchman; something does not add up. As T.M. Doran put it, “Though Atticus Finch is markedly different in “Watchman,” Harper Lee has never suggested these character flaws, nor did she do so when she repeatedly praised Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus in the film. Should we then accept the authenticity of the Atticus of “Watchman,” or the Atticus Harper Lee has represented over many decades?” (Doran, 217)
Having reviewed a host of literary-based criticisms and concerns, it is time to turn attention to other categories of arguments with regards to the gulf of separation that stands between these two works. As writers such as T.M. Doran and others have repeatedly pointed out, Harper Lee frequently praised the acting performance of Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Doran, 217) As Peter Zwick asserted, Gregory Peck’s performance is so critically important because of the way that his portrayal resonated with the audience. (Zwick, 1351) In one sense, perhaps the person who knew Atticus Finch the most intimately was the performer who played this celebrated role. In an interview of Gregory Peck’s daughter, Cecilia Peck described why this role was so deeply important to her father.
I think what he said himself sums it up so well, "I put everything I had into it — all my feelings, and everything I'd learned in 46 years of living, about family life and fathers and children. And my feelings about racial justice and inequality and opportunity.” He did put all of himself into it. And he championed the making of the film at a time when most of the studios were not ready to address the subject of racism in films. Although it may not seem groundbreaking today, at the time, the book and the film were enormously impactful. I believe they helped to shift attitudes in our country and point towards the Civil Rights legislation. My dad’s willingness to stand up for what he believed in showed in his performance as Atticus. Harper Lee and my father became inseparable for the rest of their lives. Their friendship came out of the relationship between the book and the film, which also became inseparable. As much as the book drove readers toward the film, the film drove viewers toward the novel. They are forever intertwined, and I think it’s one of the best adaptations ever from a novel into a film. (Peck, Personal Communication)
If we examine the Peck family responses and attitudes towards the publication of Go Set a Watchman, then, it is possible this may help to anchor our thoughts and opinions as to how this novel should be viewed in relation to To Kill a Mockingbird. Objectivity is challenging when we are dealing with such iconic works and loved characters, but this closer examination may assist the reader in forming a more balanced and informed view concerning the proper literary relationship between these two novels.
As quoted in Wall Street Journal’s "What would Gregory Peck Think of ‘Go Set a Watchman’? His Son Weighs in,” Stephen Peck makes some thought-provoking arguments. Peck said, for instance, that “his father would have counseled Lee not to publish “Watchman” because it could taint “Mockingbird,” one of the most beloved novels American history.” (Maloney, online) Stephen Peck’s arguments within the article shine a light on the troubling circumstances surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman.
“Not to protect himself, but to protect her,” Peck said, noting that the decision to publish it was made not long after the death of the author’s sister Alice Lee, who had long handled Harper Lee’s affairs. “You just don’t know how that decision was made… If he had to, he would have flown down to talk to her. I have no doubt.” (Maloney, online)
Stephen Peck’s interview continued with the following quote that makes a particularly important point concerning Watchman.
“To me, it was an unedited draft,” Stephen Peck said. “Do you want put that early version out there or do you want to put it in the University of Alabama archives for scholars to look at?”
Peck said he doesn’t believe the depiction of Atticus in “Watchman” will affect his father’s legacy. The Atticus of “Watchman” is a completely different character from the Atticus of “Mockingbird,” he said, “even if it’s borne from the same imagination.” (Maloney, online)
Cecilia Peck offers a different, yet complimentary perspective to her brother’s words concerning the literary connection between these two novels, as well as the artistic process itself. (Additional related information can also be found within the excellent documentary entitled "A Conversation with Gregory Peck.")
My father would have had a sense of how many drafts it took for Harper to write To Kill A Mockingbird. He would have respected the writing process and whatever it took for the book to evolve from its first draft. I think he may have been concerned to see a first draft published when Harper was ailing and no longer had complete control over her affairs. Harper told me that she never read the manuscript of Go Set A Watchman before it was published. Although she was still alive when the decision was made to publish, she wasn’t up to rereading it or engaging in an editing process. I don’t think that she would have permitted it to be published had it been “discovered” ten years earlier, when she had all of her faculties, and that may have been of concern to my father.
When Harper Lee brought the first draft of a novel to her editor Tay Hohoff at Lippincott, they undertook a two-year revision which resulted in To Kill A Mockingbird. That's the writing process. Authors write innumerable drafts before arriving at a masterpiece. Harper Lee and Tay Hayhoff had one of the great literary collaborations of all times. It was long and trying. Harper told me that she gave up more than once. She got so frustrated one night that she threw her manuscript out of the window into the snow. When she called Tay to say she couldn’t do it any more, Tay made her march down the stairs to gather it up. Harper had great respect for Tay, who urged her to set the book in the flashbacks to the younger Scout. (Peck, Personal Communication)
When I finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, earlier this year, I was part of a unique group of readers; I had never read Harper Lee’s classic before. The passion I felt for this issue was no doubt influenced by reading both books one after another; the contrast was both shocking and striking. (It may have also been meaningful to my literary experience to have read the books in part on a visit to Texas—not so very far from Harper Lee’s Alabama.) In the end, though, I am able to see more clearly that Go Set a Watchman was nothing more than a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Given the age and frailty of Harper Lee at this late period of her life, no culpability rests upon her in the poor decision to publish this second work as an independent and stand-alone work. On the contrary, the blame rests upon HarperCollins. I am in agreement with what Joe Nocera wrote in “The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud” regarding this dimension of the controversy.
So perhaps it’s not too late after all to point out that the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing. …after publishing her beloved novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in 1960, she not only never published another book; for most of that time she insisted she never would. Until now, that is, when she’s 89, a frail, hearing-and sight-impaired stroke victim living in a nursing home. Perhaps just as important, her sister Alice, Lee’s longtime protector, passed away last November. Her new protector, Tonja Carter, who had worked in Alice Lee’s law office, is the one who brought the “new novel” to HarperCollins’s attention, claiming, conveniently, to have found it shortly before Alice died. (Nocera, online)
Is the Atticus Finch of the second novel the same as the first? The gulf of time, craft, and character development standing between these two works makes it impossible to view them in either a directly connected or complimentary way. When faced with the same question, Cecilia Peck emphasized the continuity of manuscript draft development. (Peck, personal communication) This distinction or understanding, however, is entirely different from what most of us expected or understood when we began reading Go Set a Watchman—not to mention how it has largely been promoted and marketed by the publisher. This is most definitely not a “lost” second novel, but rather only a rough draft of her first. Whatever ultimately happened—whether Watchman was an early draft of Mockingbird, whether, or not, Lee revised it, whatever happened between the sister, the guardian, and HarperCollins--everything in this paper has supported the thesis that the two novels must be considered separately; they cannot be reconciled. This has been carefully explored through both literary analysis as well as cultural and historical analysis. In the end, we shouldn’t look to Go Set a Watchman as a way to better understand or illuminate the characters, but only as one draft of several that did not happen to find itself hurled out a second-floor window by its perfectionist author. This manuscript should have been quietly safeguarded in an Alabama university’s archive department rather than exploited for an easy profit by HarperCollins.
Brinkmeyer, Robert H. “Scout Comes Home Again.” Virginia Quarterly
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Doran, T. M. “Why the 'Watchman' Doesn't Add Up to Me.” Detroit Free Press, 15 July 2015, http://www.freep.com/story/ opinion/ readers/2015/07/15/ watchmen-atticus-finch/30208679/
Dufresne, Bethe. "Atticus Unmasked." Commonweal, vol. 142, no. 20, 2015., pp. 24.
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Jacobs, Kathleen M. "Writing Advice and Harper Lee." Charleston Gazette-Mail, 07-25-15 2015.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman, Harper Perennial, New York, 2015.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird, HarperCollins, New York, 1960.
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Maloney, J. (2015, July 17). “What Would Gregory Peck Think of ‘Go Set a Watchman’? His Son Weighs In.” The Wall Street Journal, 17 July
Mendenhall, Allen. "Children Once, Not Forever: Harper Lee's Go Set A
Watchman and Growing Up." Indiana Law Journal, vol. 91, no. (2016), 2016., pp. 6.
Nocera, Joe. "The 'Watchman' Fraud." New York Times, July 25, 2015.
Cecilia Peck, Personal Communication
Zwick, Peter. “Rethinking Atticus Finch." Case Western Reserve Law Review, vol. 60, no. 4, 2010, pp. 1349-1367.
"A Conversation with Gregory Peck." , directed by Barbara Kopple. , produced by Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck, and Linda Saffire. performance by Gregory Peck. Universal Studios, , 2011.
Directed by Mulligan, Robert. To Kill a Mockingbird, produced by Horton Foote, performance by Gregory Peck, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford. Universal-International, 1962.