July 11, 2015

So Atticus Finch was a racist, and "Mockingbird" was a sweetened-up rewrite?

"Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, 'Go Set a Watchman' (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like 'The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.' Or asks his daughter: 'Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?'... Though 'Watchman' is being published for the first time now, it was essentially an early version of 'Mockingbird.' According to news accounts, 'Watchman' was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957; after her editor asked for a rewrite focusing on Scout’s girlhood two decades earlier, Ms. Lee spent some two years reworking the story, which became 'Mockingbird.'"

Writes Michiko Kakutani in the NYT.

So there is a fascinating chronological sequence of stories, only some of which we can now see.

1. Harper Lee grew up in small-town Alabama, observing whatever happened, gathering her raw material.

2. "Go Set a Watchman," the original manuscript.

3. Lee's interaction with publishers. There are so many fascinating unknowns here. Why did they reject the story she decided to tell? How much did they pressure her to make the central character a hero and to tell an inspiring story of good versus evil? Did she agree with their idea of what would make a better/more marketable story and did she rewrite in sadness/anger/desperation?

4. "To Kill a Mockingbird," the published book.

5. The adoration of the book that was not the book Harper Lee, on her own, chose to write, and Harper Lee's experience of success on these terms, an experience that the public witnessed as only a failure to give us any other book.

6. The announcement of the future publication of "Go Set a Watchman" and the public's reaction to that, making it a best-seller before it is even seen.

7. The 89-year-old Harper Lee witnesses a new flood of intense "Mockingbird"-based love and decades of hunger for more — all the while knowing what happened growing up in Alabama and what is in the book the unsuspecting public will eventually — after all these years of repression — get to see.

8. The publication of "Go Set a Watchman."

9. Harper Lee finally gets to see the public's reaction, though it's a different public. It's more than half a century after she intended to tell us this story, and the readers are primed with "Mockingbird"-based expectations. Those who have been most interested in getting their hands on another Harper Lee book may feel that the book they are getting is much worse than no book at all, because it takes away what they most loved about "Mockingbird," that fine figure of a man, Atticus Finch.

10. For the next 100 years, America tries to understand this sequence of events, and the story of Harper Lee reveals its endless mythic depths.


tim in vermont said...

Burn it. Isn't that what this new muscular puritanical "moral majority" is about?

Now I have to read it though. I never wanted to read it because she didn't want it published, and I figured she had good reason for that, probably having to do with embarrassment over lack of craftsmanship.

Fandor said...

So Atticus Finch has feet of clay.
Well, how do you like that?

Kevin said...

So, a worse person learns from experience and becomes a better person over time. One might call it a sort of, character, arc or something.

Gosh, I can see why everyone's so upset, this has never happened before in the entire history of literature.

This is the same kind of moronic reaction one received vs. "The Last Temptation of Christ." Jesus' sacrifice only has value if it was a legitimate choice made of free will. The Last Temptation of Christ made that choice explicit, and was vilified for it by the rubes. Atticus' standing up for the right and good only has value if it was a legitimate choice made of free will. Soooo, who are the rubes this time around?

Tregonsee said...

People have been suggesting for some time that there be a remake of To Kill a Mockingbird. The original movie obviously missed the point that Atticus is actually the villain. After all, he refused to believe the rape victim, which we now know is sexist. Perhaps the new book will serve as a basis. (Tongue firmly in cheek.)

tim in vermont said...

Maybe it's like Huckleberry Finn? Now sometimes banned for racism when it was one of the boldest statements against racism in America possible at the time?

Maybe she thought that "Atticus Finch" was such a good literary name she could never give it up?

Maybe Huckleberry Finn is racist at the core, and when Twain wrote "No one was killed, just some niggers." He was just not being ironic? Who can say?

Maybe the publishers rightly figured that "Go Set a Watchman" would zing right over everybody's head.

Maybe it will today?

Now I have to read it.

Matt Sablan said...

I need to read it before I make any real comment. The fact Robinson is acquitted in one story and found guilty in the other is enough to make me think these are two different "worlds" and this isn't the same Atticus, so we shouldn't expect him to be the same.

Matt Sablan said...

The sad thing is, in the comments at the NYT, a lot of people are just saying things like "That's what happens when people age. Shame really that old people always turn into Republican racists." There's some actually literary criticism in there, but it seems like not a lot of deep thought going on in their comments.

MayBee said...

Isn't this the exact thinking behind a lot of the well-meaning liberal policies of the day?

MayBee said...

The sad thing is, in the comments at the NYT, a lot of people are just saying things like "That's what happens when people age. Shame really that old people always turn into Republican racists."

It's funny, because I can see how young people think that's what's happening, but it's like seeing the world believing in spontaneous generation.

What usually happens is someone keeps their opinion throughout their lives, and the world around them changes. Acceptable terms change (colored to negro to black to African American to black). The people still saying "colored" look racist, but they are just stuck in the past.
Saying things like "if you give black men jobs, they will learn to appreciate work" sounds racist now, but that was progressive Affirmative Action thinking in the 70's.

tim in vermont said...

Remember the old days when you could pick up a novel and not have the ending spilled before you had read a word?

Etienne said...

7a. Her lawyer sister dies, and her sisters lawyer assistant moves her to an assisted living center, where she is now an inmate.

Matt Sablan said...

One of the NYT comments talks about how little the South has changed ignores the fact that Republicans managed to take down a flag emblematic of slavery that Democrats raised.

It's like the vast majority of people commenting on the NYT are idiots.

tim in vermont said...

"That's what happens when people age. Shame really that old people always turn into Republican racists."

This is why I don't think a major in English is a bad education. You learn about rhetoric and you learn how you are being manipulated. Politics, movies, novels, they are about manipulation of people's emotions. Young people have been manipulated into believing these things and they can't even analyze their own manipulation.

Ann Althouse said...

"After all, he refused to believe the rape victim, which we now know is sexist."

Lawprof Steven Lubet wrote that in a law review article years ago. I was invited to do a response essay to that and did: here.

Christy said...

How much pressure was she under from her publishers to recraft the early version into a vile racist work? After all, the indoctrinated liberal arts majors who become editors and publishers know in their little hearts that Mockingbird is just wrong somehow. A decent white man from the Deep South teaching and living moral values isn't believable, is it?

Ann Althouse said...

From a New Yorker article:

"One of Atticus Finch’s strongest critics has been the legal scholar Steven Lubet, and Lubet’s arguments are a good example of how badly the brand of Southern populism Finch represents has aged over the past fifty years. Lubet’s focus is the main event of “To Kill a Mockingbird”—Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson. In “Reconstructing Atticus Finch,” in the Michigan Law Review, Lubet points out that Finch does not have a strong case. The putative rape victim, Mayella Ewell, has bruises on her face, and the supporting testimony of her father, Robert E. Lee Ewell. Robinson concedes that he was inside the Ewell house, and that some kind of sexual activity took place. The only potentially exculpatory evidence Finch can come up with is that Mayella’s bruises are on the right side of her face while Robinson’s left arm, owing to a childhood injury, is useless. Finch presents this fact with great fanfare. But, as Lubet argues, it’s not exactly clear why a strong right-handed man can’t hit a much smaller woman on the right side of her face. Couldn’t she have turned her head? Couldn’t he have hit her with a backhanded motion? Given the situation, Finch designs his defense, Lubet says, “to exploit a virtual catalog of misconceptions and fallacies about rape, each one calculated to heighten mistrust of the female complainant.”"

Matt Sablan said...

Actually, I think the difference in Tom Robinson's verdict alone is enough to tell us that these are not the same two Atticuses.

Think about: In TKAM, Atticus sees that the system sometimes fails, no matter how hard you try. He seems to think throughout that even though it won't end well, that they can at least change things in small ways by working within the system [he mentions that the guy Scout talks down was one of the longest hold outs in the jury.] He has faith in the system, but he knows it needs to change.

In the new novel, if Robinson is acquitted -- then as far as Atticus can see in the biggest, most pivotal case: The system worked.

That's... a huge difference in jumping off points for understanding the characters -- there's no way we can reconcile these two people.

tim in vermont said...

We can't possibly read the book she wrote. There are just too many things that would have been assumed to be both common knowledge and shared belief. So it is sort of interesting to read this book as a wholly new cultural artifact.

Maybe we can destroy Harper Lee to boot!

Mid-Life Lawyer said...

I'm not reading the reviews etc., until I've read the book (which I ordered through Ann's portal yesterday and I will receive while in NYC where I will, among other things, be attending Hamilton that night). I did read the first chapter and I can't help but notice some of the headlines but I'm trying to keep myself as uninfluenced as possible before I read it.

It will be interesting to see the cultural marxist's reaction to race issues in the book. Maybe the response will be so idiotic, so over the top, that it will be some kind of tipping point. Perhaps To Kill a Mockingbird is so iconic and beloved that it, and anything related, is untouchable, a bridge too far. Or maybe the book will finally be stricken from book shelves in the United States completely. After all, it does say nigger a time or two. It probably brings up the War Between the States and possibly even refers to the Confederate flag without condemning it, which is unacceptable.

When I was in law school, and I started at 48 years old in 2008, I was shocked that law professors and students would freely say "fuck", or any other word with one exception, when talking about first amendment issues in Con Law. They would not say "nigger" in the same discussions. They said N-word. Even in discussing whether saying "nigger" could be proteced etc., or provocative, they said N-word. I said "nigger" because I'm such a radical. Law professors and law students. Can you imagine that's where we are in this country?

Michael K said...

"he refused to believe the rape victim, which we now know is sexist."

This, of course, is the real horror. Racism is so passe. Everybody knows this is what drives Republicans to their every action and thought.

Now is the time to make sure no rape denier is ever allowed to exist.

Matt Sablan said...

If these stories take place in the same world, then the South of GSAW is a much BETTER place than in TKAM. They find Tom Robinson not guilty. If we assume that's the only difference, that means that the jury is not so racist and hate-filled that they can't see reasonable doubt.

If we assume these two books are the same, then despite Atticus's PERSONAL failings that the reviewer talks about, the South as a whole comes off a lot better in that it is A) Changing and B) Not as blinded by racism.

Without reading GSAW, I don't know if that's a fair assessment. But judging from the comments/reviews, GSAW is supposed to be a darker, less optimistic view of the South. But -- this is a South that didn't sentence an innocent man for a crime he didn't commit just because of his skin color! This South doesn't NEED an Atticus Finch to do the right thing.

Fernandinande said...

Republican racists.

Democrat Committee chairman punches 75-year-old [almost] blind black man in the face

Amadeus 48 said...

Wait a minute. What we have here is that tireless staple of daytime drama, the Evil Twin.
In the next installment of the epic, we will learn that the Atticus of "Set a Watchman" is really Seneca Finch, Atticus's evil twin brother, who was substituted for Atticus by the Klan after The Tom Robinson trial. Scout runs away with Boo Radley, and they Go to Sonoma, where they start a vineyard that becomes the Toast of the Coast and live in harmony with the animals and become a refuge for undocumented persons of every race, creed (except Christian), color, national origin, and gender orientation. Embracing the ethic of the heroic Atticus, Scout wins both the Nobel prize for literature and the Nobel prize for peace. After Boo's untimely death rescuing a group of undocumented transgendered Haitian and Palestinian boat people who are fleeing an Israeli death squad headed by Bibi Netanyahu, Scout embraces her inner hermaphrdite and becomes both a father/mother figure and becomes the first person of both genders elected governor of California for life. The End...or The Beginning.
Harper Lee with the guidance of her editor wrote a great, iconic novel that showed the best in human nature. She also wrote a first version that she and her team believed to be inferior. But it is all a story, fiction.. Atticus was not a deep dyed racist. Atticus was not a hero. Atticus was a character in a story who existed in Harper Lee's imagination. There is no real Atticus.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a great if sentimental novel written about a tima and a place. All should accept it for what it is. Set a Watchman cannot contain any deeper truths about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Etienne said...

The whole trial was a waste of time. The rebel flag saluting citizens did their duty in the end. Thus, the novel was nothing more than a diversion on the way to a lynching.

Matt Sablan said...

Coupe: Which makes having him be acquitted make no sense to me. If the story is about how bad the South is, why mention that the South DOESN'T have racist kangaroo courts? I guess I won't really know what's going on until I read it.

pm317 said...

Did someone recently find out that Atticus Finch was a Republican (if he was)?

David Begley said...

How about this? In TKAM Finch did his duty as a lawyer. No more. No less.

Carol said...

Sounds like the publishers tried to change a Flannery O'Connor into Maya Angelou. Thank God Flannery stuck to her guns.

Bob Ellison said...

Wouldn't the plural of "Atticus" be "Attici"?

rhhardin said...

The problem isn't that he's a racist but that he's not a sad racist.

Progressives think blacks are children but are sad about it.

Mark said...

Remember this is the NYT. It is entirely within the realm of possibility (or rather a near certainty), that the reviewer has taken a few sentences and utterances of Atticus in isolation in order to make some ideological indictment. In order to gain a true understanding of this reboot-Atticus -- if that is what it is since I'm not clear from the review if this is a reboot or a sequel -- we need to read it in the whole context.

Anonymous said...

No big puzzle here. In the time and place where the story is set, it was still possible for a decent person to be racist.

William said...

Th first part of Huckleberry Finn is a magnificent defense of Jim's humanity and of Huck's wish to do the right thing despite all the social conventions that preach otherwise. The very end of the novel is subversive of that magnificence. Tom Sawyer keeps Jiim imprisoned and fearful in order to enhance some childish game he's playing. I can think of no great novel whose ending is so completely subversive of the grandeur of the preceding chapters. But when people remember the novel they remember the trip down the river and not the stupid ending. Maybe the same thing will happen here. The tackiness of the preceding novel will enhance the splendor of the second book......There's just so much ambiguity, guilt, paternalism,resentment, envy, contempt etc. etc. going on with black/white relations that all our narratives are slant..

Sydney said...

I always still surprised when I see a photo of Harper Lee. In my mind she always looks like that actress in Capote, the movie.

Bill said...


Sydney said...

The last paragraph of the review:
One of the emotional through-lines in both “Mockingbird” and “Watchman” is a plea for empathy — as Atticus puts it in “Mockingbird” to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” The difference is that “Mockingbird” suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while “Watchman” asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus.

Interesting. I suspect her publishers thought the original was too volatile for the times even then.

Big Mike said...

What really bothers me is the way even (allegedly) well-educated modern people assume that right-thinking folks in another time and place always had the same beliefs that right-thinking folks have today. The 1950s were sixty years ago. Computers had just been invented and the best of them ran on vacuum tubes, the slowest with mechanical relay switches. (The first silicon transistor wouldn't be invented until 1954.) No cell phones. No Japanese cars. Women wore pants only to do the grungiest chores; otherwise dresses and hats. A different time, and a world quite alien to our own.

Even the most enlightened white folks -- the SJWs of their day -- viewed Blacks as inferior to whites. Now if Harper Lee could have gotten into a time machine and come forward about sixty years maybe she could write her book around 21st century values but she wrote when she wrote and reflected the attitudes of her times. But she lacked a time machine and wrote about the people and the attitudes of her own time and place.

And someday people will look back at the beliefs held by today's Progressives and ask what _________ was all about? (I leave it to the reader to fill in the blank with today's fads like AGW or veganism or 20% of all co-eds get raped at least once during their four years or women demonstrating their inherent unfitness to do science by getting more excited about a man's shirt than the latest scientific results.) How could any right-thinking person have believed that? In other words, today's SJWs will be tomorrow's Atticus Finch.

You too, Professor.

Titus said...

Sadly, the south is still the same.


Etienne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Titus said...

The south needs to just secede already. They want to and they are just a bunch of old white taker crackers.

The south is gross and sucks-always last in every category in the U.S., except obesity-natch.


YoungHegelian said...


Sadly, the south is still the same.

And Boston Southies are still as lovable as ever, too. Right, Titus?

Now that the FBI has found Whitey (gotta luv the name!) Bulger, we can always ask him about now vs the good ol' days.

buwaya said...

The South may be the same, in some sense. However, the North is far far worse, and so has slipped behind.
The only historical standard is that, taking all material and moral factors into account, who can conquer whom.
All our rhetoric and social artificialities, law, finance, bureaucracy, and etc just paper over underlying power relations. And they delay realization of the true state of affairs. Paper tigers are eventually exposed.
In the 1860's and 1930's, the South was obviously weaker.
These days, I don't think so. This fact will break through the smokescreen soon enough.

YoungHegelian said...

@Big Mike,

Even the most enlightened white folks -- the SJWs of their day -- viewed Blacks as inferior to whites.

My personal favorite Things People Used to Think was how Marxists used to think that, under Socialism, homosexuality would just disappear because homosexuality was caused by the capitalist deformation of social relations. No capitalism, no deformation, no homosexuality. Hey, that was the doctrine of the USSR, which officially had no homosexuals. The few that reared their ugly heads in the workers paradise were clearly counterrevolutionaries.

I tell young lefties this & they don't believe it, that I've just somehow got it wrong.

buwaya said...

The North suffers from advanced decadence.
Their industry has fled South, they can get nothing material done, as a result of bureaucratic paralysis, and they pretend prosperity on paper (well, electronically) with nothing to back it.
They even depend on barbarians (mostly from the South, or their local equivalents) to defend them from barbarians.

jr565 said...

A new manuscript also came forward that suggests that in addition to be a racist he's also a pedophile. "Scount, the young black boys are bucks in need of tenderness and love. Hot tenderness, the kind that only a grown man can give them. They are still children in the world, but with a little of hands on affection they can be turned into men.
Scout, someoday I'll tell you about NAMBLA the new organization I just joined. I'm going there today after my KKK meeting. We'd invite you, but the organization doesn't really cater to girls, only boys. Only sweet, black, virile boys "licks lips)."

loudogblog said...

It seems to me that if an author does a re-write and changes the character enough, that it's now a different character even though they still have the same name.

Anonymous said...

What really bothers me is the way even (allegedly) well-educated modern people assume that right-thinking folks in another time and place always had the same beliefs that right-thinking folks have today.

"Presentism" is a failure of intellect, impossible to avoid completely. But it becomes all-pervading and stupefying in eras like our own.

JustOneMinute said...

I would add this to the Harper Lee timeline:

She moved to New York City at age 23, began writing, and found an agent at 30.

She then wrote a story about how, as a young girl she thought her dad was all aces, but, having seen the wider world, eventually realized he had a faux-tolerance of blacks as long as they kept in their place. Disillusioned youth! And I am sure that a Southerner who went back home in the late 50's after years in Sin City would be mortified by the local's attitudes, which seems to be a theme of the new book.

As to her sitting n this book for nearly sixty years, well, trashing the hero and telling us all we had it all wrong may have struck her, and/or her publisher, as maybe not so great an idea.

Titus said...

South Boston is now really expensive

Titus said...

The South Boston townies which you seen in your movies are absolutely gone.

They have been replaced by fags and yuppies. Irish pubs replaced by "bistros".

No more Good Will Hunting in Southie.

Check out zillow.

You can get a 1 bedroom in "southie" for only 600k.


Left Bank of the Charles said...

The important question is not what the new book has done to Atticus but what it has done to Scout.

Beldar said...

The first volume of Robert Caro's multi-part biography of LBJ, "The Path to Power," includes a brilliant exposition of Texas politics in the 1920s, during which the KKK very nearly took control of the Texas Democratic Party. I suppose we could pretend that never happened, that even the most principled and caring individuals in the South during that time were as committed Social Justice Workers as the people who write and edit for Salon.com today. But that would be fantasy.

Titus said...

I will not travel south of DC.

Too many rednecks.


Big Mike said...

@Anglelyne, go see what David Gelernter has to say about modern youth. It's eye-opening.

Dick Stanley said...

What? Mockingbird was a creation of liberal NY publishers rewriting a racially-suspect manuscript? Shockeroo.