Sunday, July 12, 2015

Atticus Finch’s permanent record

“An explosive plot twist that no one saw coming”: that’s how a New York Times article describes Atticus Finch’s changed character in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. (Briefly: he’s an out-and-out racist.) Certainly those responsible for the publication of this work have long known that its older Atticus Finch is not the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. That the news has come out just days before the novel’s publication date (July 14) seems to me the result of careful, cynical calculation: the timing is right to produce maximum buzz with minimal damage to sales (the early orders are in).

Bewilderment about how the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird could espouse the beliefs he holds in Go Set a Watchman bespeaks a failure to distinguish between fictional characters and human beings. “Atticus Finch” isn’t a human being, a moral agent, who devolved over time — which in itself would require time travel, as Go Set a Watchman is the earlier work. “Atticus Finch” is the name of a character in two works of fiction. That the two works are wildly discrepant in their presentation of this character is a matter of a writer’s changing conception. “It’s sad to think that Atticus’s character is going to be tarnished,” says a teacher, as if the ugliness of Go Set a Watchman is going on Atticus Finch’s permanent record. (There is no human being for whom to make a permanent record.) Go Set a Watchman will require us to distinguish between what “our own desires” have made of Atticus Finch and “the literary truth,” says an academic, as if the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird was really the old racist all along. Confusion upon confusion.

For me, the most exciting news about Go Set a Watchman is that the book is arriving in mid-July, which leaves open (at least in my mind) the possibility that a J. D. Salinger book will be arrive later this year. I don’t think it’s too cynical to imagine that publishers get together on the timing of these things.

[The tea cakes and lemonade affair is going to be pretty awkward, I suspect.]

comments: 5

Frex said...

Fictional characters *feel* so real though, eh?
Reminds me of Dumbledore saying to Harry Potter, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

Michael Leddy said...

Well, yes. I think what’s going to develop here is a complicated story about Harper Lee and her editor’s influence on her work. The Times has an article today about it.

Frex said...

Yes, interesting stuff to follow---thanks for being a guide to it all!

Zhoen said...

Strange, I never felt Atticus was all that saintly. He took on a job and did it well, because it was his duty. Still paternalistic about everyone around him. Given age, and the harsh view of an adult daughter of the next generation, that his core attitudes would appear to harden, seems well within the range of the character as written in Mockingbird. Even that the court case from Mockingbird would have soured any remaining idealism in the character.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, but Go Set a Watchman with older Atticus is the earlier work. Michiko Kakutani’s review says that In GSaW, Tom Robinson was acquitted.