The Canon of Atticus Finch

I’ve blogged in the past about how To Kill a Mockingbird was a major influence on my life.  The character of Atticus Finch, the southern lawyer who espoused both dignity and compassion in a world that was sizzling with racial discrimination and bigotry, meant a tremendous amount to me.  Especially when that book was part of my high school reading curricula.  I’ve blogged about the book in the past, and I’ve blogged about participating in a read-a-thon fundraiser in which the entire book was read aloud from cover to cover.

Which is why I’ve approached this new Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman, with equal parts trepidation and concern.  Go Set a Watchman purports to be Harper Lee’s first novel, and was later passed over and rewritten as To Kill a Mockingbird.  In Go Set a Watchman, the character of Scout – Atticus Finch’s daughter – is now an adult woman and visiting her hometown of Maycomb, Mississippi from New York City.  The characters that we remember – Jem, Dill, Calpurnia – they’re all there.

And then there’s the character of Atticus Finch – who is completely different than his To Kill a Mockingbird character.  This Atticus Finch is a segregationist.  Bordering even on cold-blooded racism.  It’s almost as if there was a second version of Charlotte’s Web in which Charlotte’s messages about Wilbur the pig were of “TASTES FRESH” and “MAKES GOOD BACON.”

This isn’t the way I want to remember Atticus Finch.  He stood for ideals in a changing and turbulent time.  And although some people might say that the additional layer of Go Set a Watchman brings a new perspective on Atticus’ character…

I can’t accept it.  And I won’t.

There’s a thing called canon, in which certain episodes of television shows are considered part of the history of the character, while other episodes are considered off-shoots or not part of that character’s universe.  For example, while Star Trek and the movies and the live-action TV sequels are considered canon, Star Trek: The Animated Series is not.

And that’s where I’m putting Go Set a Watchman.  I’m not considering it as canon.

First off… this was a manuscript that hadn’t seen the light of day in over 55 years.  Harper Lee rewrote the characters and created To Kill a Mockingbird.  She never wrote another book after that.  And I’m still not convinced that she was of sound mind when this manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was unearthed and set for publication.

And even if we’re considering this book as Harper Lee’s sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, then why should this book – which arguably wasn’t even finished enough to convince publishers to print it years ago – is now suddenly a must-read on the New York Times bestseller list?  It’s the equivalent of finding unfinished drafts of J.D. Salinger’s novels and suddenly deciding that they can be published as the further adventures of the Glass family.

I’m sorry.  I can’t bring myself to read Go Set a Watchman or even to purchase a copy of the text.  As far as I’m concerned, To Kill a Mockingbird was perfect in and of itself.  It didn’t need a sequel or a prequel.  That book meant a tremendous amount in my life.  It proved that no matter your social status, no matter your color or religion or identity – you should always do right for your fellow human, no matter if the standards of the time dictate otherwise.

So for those of you who bought a copy of Go Set a Watchman, I hope you enjoy it.

Because I don’t need a racist Atticus Finch any more than I need a phony Holden Caulfield or a pig-sacrificing Charlotte the spider.


3 thoughts on “The Canon of Atticus Finch”

  1. Chuck, I couldn’t agree more. I did laugh aloud at the Charlotte’s Web example – but you have hit the nail on the head. I too am not convinced Harper Lee wanted this book published. I also think it was FROM Go Set a Watchman that the characters were developed, therefore Ms. Lee may not have been satisfied with them until To Kill a Mockingbird; almost a rough draft of sorts. I can understand the literary world’s excitement at having the novel, but it is not for me.


  2. Whereas I think Watchman will be instructional. Perhaps THIS is the book that she wanted to write, but the editors, probably correctly, realized would not be embraced, especially in the South.

    As for canon, I used to read comic books, so I’m used to canon being a bit loosey-goosey. Marisa Tomei will play Aunt May in the next Spider-Man movie, fer cryin’ out loud.


  3. Here are my (professional) thoughts:

    Go Set… was a first effort, one in which Atticus was a racist. Ms. Lee was asked to edit it down, and in that next effort he became something less than that, something we all now think of as saintly. Did Scout see him through rose-colored glasses? Would a revised version of Watchman have stayed with this “new” Atticus? We’ll never know. As an insight into the creative process, this is a great gift. As an insight into Atticus? It’s a first draft.


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