Take it easy, y’all — Atticus is still Atticus


Over the weekend, there was a national (and international) cry of pain as folks heard that, in the long-lost Harper Lee novel Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch turned out to be a cranky old segregationist.

Don’t worry. Atticus is still Atticus.

I’m an editor, and as an editor — although not a book editor, I’ll allow — I understand why a book, or a column, or a news story, doesn’t get published: Because it wasn’t good enough.

Here’s what happened: A wannabe novelist submitted a manuscript, and an editor took a look at it, and said, essentially, This is not the novel you want to publish. The novel you want to publish is in these flashback passages. Dig into those, make those into your novel, and then you’ll have something.

He saw the truth in those passages, when Scout was just a girl. So, the editor did what I did when a piece just needed way more change than I had time to give it in the editing process — he kicked it back, gave her the chance to redeem herself as a writer, to write the great book that the editor saw in her.

No one has said this, but I strongly suspect that the editor had had his fill of novels by young folks who had come to New York, donned a mantle of self-conscious sophistication, gone home to visit their small-town homes, and then thought they were being terribly original by coming back to Manhattan and writing about how small, provincial, narrow and stultifying their home towns were. When really, they were being painfully trite.

He wanted Nelle to dig into the true story that she had in her, the one before all that, when she and Scout were unspoiled by the world, and yes, her Daddy was a hero.

And of course, being the editor, he was right. What he directed her to write was perhaps the best-loved American novel, one that was true, that spoke to people, that hit them where they lived, that said something about the American experience and its central conflict that needed to be said, and needed to be said in precisely that voice. (Interesting, isn’t it, that the two great, profound American novels that examine the narrative of race in this country — this and Huck Finn — are both told from the perspective of a child…)

I plan to read Go Set A Watchman, and I expect I’ll enjoy parts of it, here and there — it will be nice to hear that voice again. But I’m not going to get upset thinking something happened to Atticus. I know the real Atticus. This isn’t some sequel revealing some new, shocking side to him; this is just an imperfect, throwaway, first draft of him. And I know how little first drafts may be worth, before an editor gets ahold of them.


63 thoughts on “Take it easy, y’all — Atticus is still Atticus

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    Well, To Kill a Mockingbird is a nice book, for young adults. I have not and do not intend to read Go Set a Watchman—way to much of a stench of exploitation and hype for me. However, fiction doesn’t have to be largely optimistic, uplifting, hagiographic , to be true. A Good Man Is Hard to Find is probably better than Mockingbird, or any of the other, darker Southern fictions that emerged in the early middle 20th century.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, it doesn’t, and thanks for using one of my favorite words, hagiographic.

      But in THIS case the right version of the story, the version that worked on all levels, DID describe a hero, a particular kind of hero, and one who deserved to be seen as a hero.

      In fact, it was the essential TRUTH that people sensed of his unusual, unassuming sort of hero — he whose children thought he was only good for one thing (explaining things) — that made the book so special.

      And speaking of not being “optimistic” or “uplifting” — in the less-perfect book the editor rejected, when Scout flashes back to the big trial in which her father defended a black man, he was successful. The man was acquitted. The tragic, truer, more perfect story was the one we all came to love.

      And how can you dismiss as sweetness and light a novel in which the two children at its center are nearly murdered by a vicious, vengeful personification of hatred — only to be be rescued by the neighborhood’s frighteningly flawed boogeyman, Boo Radley? You know, the guy who had casually stabbed his own father in the leg with a pair of scissors, before going back to cutting clippings from a newspaper.

      Not your typical “nice book (for) young adults.” There’s darkness that the children don’t suspect until it almost consumes them.

      During that documentary that aired on PBS Friday night, someone said Boo was the real central character of the book. There’s an argument to be made for that…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Um, I did not dismiss it as “sweetness and light”–but it *is* more of a young adult book than a mature fiction. Young adult books are typically a bit dark–or even lately, a lot dark. They are just marked by a certain simplicity of theme–and simplicity can be a good thing. I am a fan of good simplicity.
        Young adult book =/= children’s book

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      It’s kind of like the flag situation.

      As you rightly said earlier today, we’re not a bunch of naive Pollyannas to see that a really, truly, unquestionably good thing just happened in South Carolina — and happened the right way, without hesitation or compromise or “yes, buts…:

      And sometimes, there is a true character in literature who is really good and admirable…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Well, c’mon. In a mature work, Atticus would not be as played by Gregory Peck. Not movie hero—more like cable drama hero.
        He would be, as are we all, shot through with flaws and quirks, and complexities. Sure, Mockingbird is more complex than Watchman is said to be, and, yes, I am sure it is because of a good editor. I am a huge fan of editors as the daughter and sister of two.

        The better film/TV show describing that era and its challenges is the late lamented I’ll Fly Away. Forrest Bedford is a reluctant civil rights warrior who cheats on his mentally ill, hospitalized wife with another local lawyer. There are black people who have lives of their own, and we see them.
        Plus Sam Waterston > Gregory Peck

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          You’re talking about the movie — but that’s fair enough, since I used the movie stills.

          I think Sam Waterston is a good choice, although I have to say I think of him as sort of a latter-day Gregory Peck.

          And I think fondly on Gregory Peck BECAUSE he played Atticus Finch, which imbued him with a dignity and respect he might otherwise have lacked.

          Question: How do you see Waterston as different from Peck? I’m not arguing; I’d just be interested to know.

          I’ll tell you one thing they have in common — neither of them is a Southerner.

          Wouldn’t it have been fascinating if Atticus had been played by someone who was convincing as a Southern lawyer, someone in whom you could see the moral complexity and contractions that make him both an upstanding member of his community and someone with values that can make him a pariah.

          I don’t know who that would be. I think of Andy Griffith (not Andy the clown, Andy the scary-good dramatic actor in “A Face in the Crowd”). But his characters weren’t as genteel, as well-spoken, as Atticus — although he had a good Atticus-like relationship with Opie. (When he dropped the hick act in the later episodes as Andy Taylor, and when he actually played the Southern lawyer in “Matlock,” he just wasn’t as compelling.)

          I don’t know who could have brought that element, either in the early 60s or today…

          1. Bryan Caskey

            Wouldn’t it have been fascinating if Atticus had been played by someone who was convincing as a Southern lawyer, someone in whom you could see the moral complexity and contractions that make him both an upstanding member of his community and someone with values that can make him a pariah.


            1. Doug Ross

              I’ve been working my way through Justified over the past few weeks. Mid-way through season five now. While it is good and entertaining, it’s not great in my opinion. You have to suspend disbelief way too often.

              It’s not in the Mad Men, House of Cards level…

              Try Hell on Wheels if you like post-Civil War period dramas. I thought it was better than Justified. Also, if you like adult comedies, the new Catastrophe on Amazon was very good for a short season (6 episodes).

              1. Bryan Caskey

                I tried Hell on Wheels. I made it through two or three episodes and then lost interest. It just didn’t grab me.

              2. Kathryn Fenner

                It’s supposed to be unreal. It’s the witty dialogue, plus the excellent acting, not the verisimilitude

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              Is that Boyd Crowder?

              No, no, no. He has to be more upstanding than that. He’s way too believable as a guy who would fire an RPG at a black church.

              You need someone who projects a bit more moral rectitude…

              1. Kathryn Fenner

                Yes, he played Boyd Crowder and Shane Vendrell and Venus Van Damme….Goggins is an excellent actor, and in some of his indie films, he has shown a rectitude–frankly, even in Justified, you can see it.

          2. Kathryn Fenner

            Waterston is a vastly better actor all round than Peck. Peck played Peck, as movie stars did. Waterston can play anybody–Yale Drama alum. Just appeared as Prospero in Shakespeare in the Park.
            I’ll Fly Away was just a lot more complex.

          3. Kathryn Fenner

            They didn’t have “actors” leading in big studio movies back then–they had stars. Stars played themselves. It wasn’t until the auteurs took over, and the studio system died off, that you see actors as leads.
            Paul Newman was southern. Did at least one film based on a Tennessee Williams play–Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I wonder if he’d have had the gravitas, though.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I think you’re right about Newman and gravitas. He was always kind of a wiseguy, rather than an iconic fatherly type. The qualities that made him good in “Cool Hand Luke” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” would work against him as Atticus.

              Atticus was SERIOUS, not a guy to kid around.

              And Peck brought a Lincolnesque brooding quality to the character… Without Lincoln’s fun side.

              1. Kathryn Fenner

                TLJ was not old enough. When he was age appropriate, sure–Sam Shepard, too.
                Good actors can bring the gravitas. Waterstone, however, is especially noted for it.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I have to stay neutral on that because two or three people over the years have described me as a Sam Waterston type. Which means he must be really, really cool, right?

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Not today, I don’t. Got my summer cut Saturday.

              Today, I had to meet someone over at Thomas Cooper library, so I walked from ADCO (1220 Pickens) there and back, at 2 and 3 p.m. respectively.

              I think I got a sunburned scalp, and my brains have seemed a bit scrambled all afternoon.

              I think I need to go out and get one of those straw trilbies like my grandfather, who was a traveling salesman, used to wear….


              1. Kathryn Fenner

                Trilbies are awfully twee with a bowtie. Maybe a panama? Mast General Store.
                You still have a lot more hair than, say, other commenters on the blog, myself included.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    I was just checking my Twitter feed, and I saw the above headline, with the assertion “Atticus is still Atticus,” right next to my profile picture.

    Which made me want to add, “and a guy who looks like this should know, right?”


    Now y’all get behind me while I take off my specs and deal with this mad dog that’s threatening the town…

  3. Karen Pearson

    To me, the real genius of “To Kill a Mockingbird” lay in its depiction of a small southern town in the 30’s and of the people who lived in it as seen through a 6 year old’s eyes. I understand that people are already talking about how Atticus is a racist in “Go Set a Watchman.” I read that the Atticus in this GSaW doesn’t think black people are smart enough or well enough adapted to white culture to have the rights that white folk have. If that’s the case, then–news flash–that was the ‘liberal’ position in the south back in the 40’s and 50’s. I know that in larger towns especially, there were some white folk advocating for black’s voting rights, but not many. I don’t think that qualifies as “racist” in that era, although it would today. At any rate, I could see Maycomb in my minds eye well before the movie came out with it’s version.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Karen raises an interesting point.

      It is quite credible that a person who was willing to risk his life (and the lives of his children), and certainly his reputation, to defend Tom Robinson could also have had his doubts about desegregation.

      It may be difficult for some people in 2015 to understand, but a man of principle in the ’30s didn’t necessarily hold all the de rigeur attitudes of the ideologically correct in the 21st century.

      But I DON”T see him as anyone who would EVER attend a White Citizens’ Council meeting, as the recently unearthed novel suggests, according to reports.

      I go back to what I said above: I suspect novice novelist Lee was trying to serve up something that fit the “I’m too enlightened and sophisticated for my hometown” cliche, and her editor got her to reach for something deeper…

      But I won’t know, will I, until I read the rejected book, which is difficult at the moment because I don’t intend to shell out $27.99 for the privilege (or, for that matter, $13.99 on my iPad)…

  4. Bill

    I don’t think she wrote it.Much too nuanced and complex transition to believe she wrote both novels…

      1. Bill

        Could be,but after hearing a THIRD novel has been ‘discovered’,I’ve become a little leery.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          *Among* the many novels of Harper Lee….

          It sounds as if the editor really made Mockingbird what it is.

      1. scout

        Ding ding ding. Yes, I left for the beach on Saturday. I pre-ordered the book weeks ago but haven’t thought or heard much about it til now. This is most disturbing. Like the article said, Scout feels baffled and distressed. I shall now attempt to digest this some and perhaps comment more later.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        I mean, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic West, heck, Hugh Laurie could all play Atticus. Bill Nighy—maybe not.

  5. scout

    I also liked Gregory Peck as Penny Baxter in the yearling, which I can see as Kathryn points out is probably a similar character. but I can’t tell how much of My impression of that character is from the movie and from the book. I really liked the book. I tend to imagine the book with the actors from the movie and later cant tell which was which.

    I reckon, I’ll read the book. Not sure how I feel about Atticus not acting like Atticus. I dont think I have a problem with Atticus being a bit of an unrealistic ideal. I think its believable seen through a six year olds eyes.

    I can see Sam Waterson as Atticus. He’s not Southern either, but maybe David Strathairn. For a southerner, this may seem odd, but Matthew McConnahey, (however you spell his name), might be able to do it. Hes done southern lawyer in A Time to kill, though its been a long time since I saw it; I may not remember it clearly. The father child relationship in Interstellar was nice. His character in Mud was not at all like Atticus Finch, but it was very Southern, complex, and quirkily idealistic. I don’t know. That might be crazy.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      McConnaughey is a great actor, and from Texas. He could bring the gravitas. Strathairn could do it, but we seem to be casting about for Gregory Peck types. Gene Hackman is the one non-tall slender type we’ve suggested.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oh, I think tall and slender is the way to go with Atticus. Gene Hackman is just so awesome that he could overcome the lack of the Anglo-aristo face and body type requirements…

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          But why? If you spend time in local courtrooms, you see far more portly lawyers than attenuated ones, and I believe that has been true for a long time. Lincoln was a noted aberration.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          It’s just the way I picture him. He’s sort of Lincolnesque. Father Abraham. Brooding, full of deep thoughts. Way too busy reading books and being noble to think about eating…

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        As for McConnaughey being a “great actor”… well, I’ve seen him do some pretty good stuff, but I still have trouble shaking the image of him in “Dazed and Confused,” talking about what he likes about high school girls…

      3. Doug Ross

        I’m sure that seen where Atticus sunbathes by the pool would be much better with McConnaughey.

        Although his closing argument in the trial might be a little shorter: “Alright, alright, alright.. he’s innocent.”

        1. Bryan Caskey

          “Alright, alright, alright.. he’s innocent.”

          Damn! You beat me to it. Ok, that’s all for today, kids. Off to court.

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