Say it isn’t so, Atticus. Isn’t that what we’re all thinking? For generations he has been the hero, the decent guy, the mensch we all hoped we would be in the circumstances. Didn’t hurt that we also picture him as Gregory Peck, standing tall and leaning down to explain to Scout about walking a mile in another person’s shoes.
I’ve been thinking--and talking with friends about--why the idea of Atticus’s feet of clay causes such distress. Even though the new book was written decades ago, I find it hard not to see it in current political terms: “To Kill a Mockingbird” was the magic of November 4, 2008, in Chicago’s Grant Park, that beautiful young family center stage, so much ugliness behind us, and that feeling that everything was possible. “Go Set a Watchman” is John Boehner’s declaration two days later that the Republicans’ top goal was to make Barack Obama “a one-term president.” It’s Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. It’s the racism we’ve been seeing in the news over the past year and so much more, the scar on our country’s heart since the 17th century.
This new Atticus wounds us because he was us at our best. It is the gift of fiction to allow us the chance to have our own mental picture of the characters on the page. We've carried Atticus in our minds and hearts, taking in what we thought he was saying about human dignity. Children were named for him. People went to law school because of him. And now it turns out he was against racism before he was for it? He anti-evolved? Or we did. Just as Scout grows into Jean Louise and recognizes the messiness of real life, we have come to terms over and over with schoolbook heroes--Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt--whose lives and actions were significantly more complicated than elementary school let on.
So now what? I haven’t read the book yet, of course, but I’ve been reading the articles about it, about Harper Lee, about Harper Lee’s editor. Big front page articles by thoughtful writers. I’ve read the first chapter, released ahead of the book’s debut. And I guess that what I’m thinking right now is that along with my great misgivings is also the great pleasure of seeing how a work of fiction can still spark heated discussion and soul-searching thought. Whatever the fortunes of fictional characters, the power of books endures.