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With 'Go Set a Watchman,' Atticus Finch shows complexities of racism in America (+video)

The national conversation about Harper Lee’s new book comes during a moment when the country is grappling with its history of race in renewed and troubled ways.

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    In this 1962 file photo originally released by Universal, actor Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' based on the novel by Harper Lee.
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Mythologized as much as any character in the pantheon of American literature, Atticus Finch, the moral center of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was an inspiring symbol of strong-minded justice in the face of vicious racism. Until last week, he was seen as a legendary if fictional defense attorney who would stand alone to battle injustice, no matter the challenges or personal costs.

But after the release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman,” which in just one week has sold an astonishing 1.1 million copies in the United States and Canada and topped bestseller lists in Britain, many readers were stunned to discover that the beloved character and model for many aspiring lawyers was also a genteel racist, eugenicist, and white supremacist.

For many, the disappointment, even outrage, was crushing. Why not leave Atticus be? some responded. These readers prefer to remember the noble lawyer in “Mockingbird,” immortalized by Gregory Peck’s Academy Award-winning performance in 1963 – named the greatest movie hero of all time by the American Film Institute in 2003. Newspapers interviewed children named after Ms. Lee's fictional single dad, who now find themselves saddled with a decidedly more complicated moniker.

But for many other cultural observers, the combined portrait in both books gives a much more nuanced portrayal of the subtleties of race in American culture. “Watchman” reveals how even those with noble aspirations and personal integrity can maintain an underlying racist worldview – a complex admixture that is actually more true to the human condition than most heroic tales often attest.

The national conversation about Lee’s new book comes during a moment when the country is grappling with its history of race in renewed and troubled ways. The deaths of unarmed black people in police custody, the shootings of nine black church members in South Carolina – and the resulting impact on the legacy of the Confederate flag – as well as the long, problematic history of black incarceration in America have each dominated national headlines. These legal issues echo the themes of injustice that made “Mockingbird” a world-renowned coming-of-age classic and its Atticus so beloved.

“The importance of this new Atticus is that he is layered and complex in his prejudices,” wrote Isabel Wilkerson in The New York Times. “[He] might even be described as a gentleman bigot, well meaning in his supremacy... He is a character study in the seeming contradiction that compassion and bigotry can not only reside in the same person but often do, which is what makes racial bias, as it has mutated through the generations, so hard to address.”

“Go Set a Watchman,” of course, is in some ways a rough draft for “Mockingbird,” Ms. Lee’s only published novel until last week. The manuscript for “Watchman” was only recently – and mysteriously – discovered after being forgotten for over 55 years, the publisher said. Lee said her original editor told her to rewrite her first effort featuring an adult Jean Louise Finch, and focus on flashbacks of the younger Scout. “Mockingbird” became more a tale of integrity and redemption than the darker portrait of a racist society released last week in “Watchman.”

"[H]erein lies the paradox at the heart of 'Watchman,'" former US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey wrote in The Washington Post, "that many white Americans still cannot or will not comprehend: that one can at once believe in the ideal of 'justice for all' — as Atticus once purported to — and yet maintain a deeply ingrained and unexamined notion of racial difference now based in culture as opposed to biology, a milder yet novel version of white supremacy manifest in, for example, racial profiling, unfair and predatory lending practices, disparate incarceration rates, residential and school segregation, discriminatory employment practices and medical racism."

Recommended: Why Southern writers still captivate, 55 years after 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

And many black critics point out that “Mockingbird” falls within the tradition of the country’s “white savior” narratives, stories that depict white heroes as the primary agents of black redemption.    

“The literary trope of the 'white savior,' – as also depicted in Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel 'The Help' – makes the assumptions that African Americans are not agents in their liberation struggles and it erases as well as insults a civil rights movement already afoot,” writes activist and scholar Irene Monroe in The Huffington Post.

In “Watchman,” Jean Louise, back home in Maycomb, Ala., from New York, where she is living the independent life her father encouraged her to pursue, sits in the same courtroom balcony where she watched Atticus defend Tom Robinson 20 years earlier. This time, however, he is attending a meeting of the Maycomb’s White Citizens Council, discussing how to fight desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education. Confronting him the next day, she says:

“I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me – if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday…”

Atticus listens with his familiar patience and calm, asking questions and seeking clarifications.

“Honey, you do not seem to understand that Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people," he says in dialogue difficult for "Mockingbird" fans to read without wincing. "You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress as a people in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ’em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government – can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?”

It is a resentment that some in the South still appear to feel, as supporters of the Confederate flag have voiced in the past few weeks.   

But many have pointed out that there were already hints of Atticus’s racist views in “Mockingbird.” As the young Scout recalls in 1960 book: “Cecil Jacobs asked me one time if Atticus was a Radical. When I asked Atticus, Atticus was so amused I was rather annoyed, but he said he wasn’t laughing at me. He said, ‘You tell Cecil I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin.’”

The lawyer was referring to James “Cotton Tom” Heflin, the real-life Alabama congressman and US senator who was an outspoken white supremacist.

“The new book has prompted a closer look at how much of the ‘new’ Atticus Finch was embodied, though hidden away, in the old,” writes Michael Hiltzik, critic with the Los Angeles Times. “For all the courtly tolerance of 'Mockingbird's' Atticus, he was engaged in upholding an entrenched system. His reaction to his innocent black client's condemnation by the jury is resigned acceptance, not fury.”

And despite its unique hold on the American imagination, “Mockingbird” has not enjoyed universal critical acclaim. Flannery O’Connor, the award-winning Southern Gothic short story writer, once dismissed it as “a child’s book,” and The New Yorker in 2006 called it “a kind of moral Ritalin” with Atticus labeled “a plaster saint.”  

Critics overall have found the new novel uneven, with some saying the best bits were done better in "Mockingbird." And others still maintain a deep wariness about the manuscript's sudden reappearance after the death of Alice Lee, Lee's sister and long-time protector. But literary merit aside, what has startled some cultural observers is just how timely the discussion about a book written more than 55 years ago could feel at this present moment.

"Although there persists in 'Watchman' an idea of the primacy of the individual conscience," Ms. Trethewey, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, writes, "the novel serves to remind us that we are at a moment in our ongoing pursuit of justice that puts our national conscience at stake, and it is all the more pressing that the watchman be attuned to the collective soul of our nation."

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