book release

Who Owns Atticus Finch?


The moment is here! At midnight comes the release of Harper Lee’s loooooooooooong awaited 2nd novel, Go Set a Watchman. Have you been following that? If not, short summary:

There have been 55 years between Lee’s first masterful book about racism, To Kill a Mockingbird, and 2nd.  Frankly some people are suspicious of her 2nd. Was she pressured into publishing this manuscript they just unearthed? She is quoted as being delighted. But Harper Lee has always been like her own character, Boo Radley—a bit reclusive. So as she has not come in front of a TV camera and reassured all of us celebrity-hungry fans, I could not judge either way. If this is her decision, I applaud her for entering the race debate again, and holding true to herself as an artist no matter what anyone says.

I’m just worried about Atticus.

Go Set A Watchman continues the story of our beloved Scout, 20 years after we saw this spunky tomboy in To Kill a Mockingbird. But it would be slightly misleading to call it a sequel. Chronologically, it’s a sequel, but Lee wrote it before To Kill a Mockingbird. The 2nd book is really one of her first, or even a draft of her masterpiece.

The reviews are a bit scandalous. The grown-up Scout (Jean Louise) discovers her father was a racist all this time. Seriously, you can’t do this to Atticus Finch. As one person tweeted, “First Bill Cosby then Atticus Finch.” Implying all the childhood icons of fatherhood and heroes are falling.

My reaction? Well, I hate to judge a book by its coverage, and the tweets are fierce. If Atticus turns out to be a racist in Watchman, I will be sad, but I won’t look at him as the “True Atticus.” I view the printing of this book as a scholar’s study of how Mockingbird evolved. So maybe I’ll read them in opposite order, Watchman then Mockingbird, and look upon it as the redemption of Atticus Finch. It’s a wonderful story in the writing world, isn’t it, of how a character Lee wrote as a bigot in one draft turned into a man we have admired for decades in a later draft?

I worry the general public won’t see it this way. Maybe Harper Lee doesn’t intend for me to see it this way. So here’s really my question of the day:

Who owns Atticus Finch? The American public or Harper Lee?

Legally, Harper Lee does, of course. But we have 55 years of our reaction to Atticus as a culture. We grew up wanting to be Scout, both to have her adventures and her dad. We love the fact that Atticus can’t play football with the other dads but can save the neighborhood from a rabid dog. We love his moral courage, his human empathy for a black man wrongly accused of rape. And in the courtroom? We root for him. And then we stand overhead as someone whispers for us to stand up and honor this man as he passes by in his noble defeat.


Our American culture has adopted this Atticus. We read the book in school, saw it on stage, watched Gregory Peck in the movie, adopted it into our book clubs. There is a dance between writer and reader. The magic cannot happen unless the writer shows us her vision and we somehow make it our own. And in Lee’s 55 years of relative silence, we have taken her story and made it ours, almost without interference.

I am not arguing that Lee has no rights to her characters. See my blog, “The Ethics of Wonderland,” about Frank Beddor’s Looking Glass Wars. He not only has a unique take on Wonderland, he has Alice chew out Lewis Carroll for getting her story wrong. That’s going a giant step beyond fan fiction. But I am saying, no matter how Atticus is depicted in Watchman, it’s too late to undo the relationship between the American public and the characters we came to love in Mockingbird.

Whatever hesitation I might have had I put aside to participate in an all-day book launch event for Watchman. Barnes and Noble hosted an all-day reading of Mockingbird today. One person read for 30 minutes, the next picked up wherever they stopped. I got the portion with the cranky old neighbor lady with a foul mouth. Quite by chance, I ended with the quote a friend and I are using in a community art project called NICE.

The event was fun. The store was not crowded when I was there in the early afternoon, but you could see customers pause, and tune into the forgotten phrases of that Great American Novel they once read in school. I was honored to be a part of it. Regardless of the merits or flaws of Go Set a Watchman, To Kill a Mockingbird will remain a classic that reaches us as Americans and human beings on a profound level.

Do you like Mockingbird? Will you be reading Watchman? And do you think a work of art can ever become so big and important to the culture, the author loses some control of it to the culture? Have we adopted Atticus to the point Lee cannot take him back?

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