Atticus Finch, human vs demigod

Gregory Peck playing the role of Atticus Finch in the film To kill a Mockingbird.
Gregory Peck playing the role of Atticus Finch in the film To kill a Mockingbird.
Go Set A Watchman Author: Harper Lee Publisher: HarperCollins Price: Rs 749
Go Set A Watchman
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: HarperCollins
Price: Rs 749

Those of us who have grown up reading, rereading and holding in a corner of our hearts its upright and adorable hero, Atticus Finch, who puts up a spirited and principled fight against racism in the Alabama of the 1930s, in Harper Lee’s To kill a Mockingbird, just couldn’t wait for its prequel Go set a Watchman. This title is derived from Isaiah 21:6.

After all the brouhaha and feverish debates over how it was not Harper Lee but others around her who discovered this earlier manuscript and decided to publish it, came a huge shocker. Previews of the book said that the Atticus that millions — Mockingbird has sold well over 40 million copies — of people look up to as a crusader, played so ably by Gregory Peck in the 1950s’ Hollywood classic, who took up the case of the negro Tom Robinson on trial for raping a white woman is after all not the towering righteous icon we’ve worshipped for decades.

But before looking at the finer nuances of the Watchman, note that this was the original novel that Lee completed in 1957. But her editor told her to go back and rewrite the book from Scout’s viewpoint when she was a little girl, and both Jem her brother, and Atticus, her father, were her heroes. When plans for publishing the

Scout, with her father Atticus, in the film.
Scout, with her father Atticus, in the film.

Watchman, which was completed in 1957, were disclosed, Lee said in a statement that after really liking the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood her editor had persuaded her “to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.”

And thank god she did that; or the world would have been deprived of the Mockingbird! Interestingly, just like Jean Louis Finch, or Scout, our feisty little girl with her fists frequently clenched, Lee was living in New York when she wrote Watchman, and occasionally came to Alabama to visit her aging father, the lawyer A C Lee, the Atticus of Mockingbird.

Right timing

And what a timing to release the Watchman! A time when America is grappling with racist attacks on blacks, bombing of the black 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, white cops busting a black teenagers’ pool party in Texas! Watchman lands bang in the midst of this debate.

Lee’s much awaited book opens with the 26-year-old Jean Loius — I’d rather call her Scout — taking the train ride from New York to Maycomb, where Atticus is now 72, and severely afflicted with arthritis. Romantic interest is thrown in with the entry of Henry Clinton, who to Scout’s agitation is referred to as “white trash” by her Aunt Alexandra, who considers him unfit to marry a Finch. But Clinton is a competitive junior to Atticus and she finds him interesting; his biggest plus point being that “he let her be silent when she wanted to be. She did not have to entertain him.” This, Lee tells us, he had learnt from Atticus, who had warned him “Don’t push her. Let her go at her own speed. Push her and every mule in the country’d be easier to live with.”

Childhood flashbacks

Incidentally her darling brother Jem has died two years earlier; inheriting a weak heart from their mother who dies when the kids are very young, he just drops dead in front of Atticus’s office one day. Some vivid passages in the book take you back to their childhood. In one passage Jem enacts a revival, playing the role of the Rev Moorhead, “a tall sad man with a stoop,” with Scout and Dill being both the congregation and the chorus. When he starts on hell, Scout stops him as the reverend’s original sermon on its horrors “was enough to last her a lifetime.” So instead, he moves on to heaven where there are plenty of bananas (Dill’s favourites) and scalloped potatoes — her delight. The session ends with Scout’s baptism … being dunked stark naked in a pool with slimy water and walking home without a stitch of clothing to confront Atticus and Rev Moorhead on the driveway!

One thing is certain; Watchman is going to give Mockingbird a run for its money for the number of memorable quotes and that is the power of Lee’s pen. As Clinton keeps renewing his efforts to get her to say ‘Yes’ to his marriage proposal, Jean Louis ponders: “But I’m not domestic. I don’t even know how to run a cook. What do ladies say to each other when they go visiting? I’d have to wear a hat. I’d drop babies and kill ’em.”

Shocking climax

As you get deeply enchanted by Lee’s effortless writing style and firm strokes that give a different dimension to Scout, the young woman, the reader is slowly taken towards a shocking climax. The daughter’s discovery that the man she had held as God and “looked up to as I never looked up to anybody in my life,” is after all like the other racist white southerners in Maycomb.

This facet of Atticus she stumbles on to accidentally when she walks into the Maycomb citizens council meet where Atticus and her sweetheart Clinton are seated calmly listening to “a man who spewed filth from his mouth about the negroes.” Remember their household help Calpurnia, who brings up Scout and Jem just as a mother would in the Mockingbird?

As the meeting goes on, the shocked young woman hears phrases such as “kinky wooly heads … still in the trees … greasy smelly … mongrelise the race … save the South.” There is more: “Not the question of whether snot-nosed niggers will go to school with your children or ride the front of the bus … it’s whether Christian civilisation will continue to be or whether we will be slaves of the Communists … nigger lawyers … decent white Christmas. Was Jesus crucified for the nigger?”

As both Atticus and Clinton listen to this harangue, she feels sick. “Her stomach shut, she began to tremble. Every nerve in her body shrieked, then died. She was numb.” As she watches the progress of the citizens’ council meet “she heard her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentlemen, if there’s one slogan in the world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” That is of course a flashback to the Mockingbird.

Racist bigot?

Then of course comes the ultimate shock when Jean Loius challenges her father and he tells her that the negroes have been given all the chances they needed, and that “you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilisation and have a social Arcadia.” The ultimate shocker of course, which has had many of Atticus’s original admirers from Mockingbird seeing red and calling him a “racist bigot” is when he tells his daughter: “Do you want your children going to a school that has been dragged down to accommodate negro children?”

Jean Louis’s spirited defence focuses on the need to give the blacks hope. “You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart. You won’t find that in the Constitution, I picked that up in church somewhere. They are simple people, most of them, but that doesn’t make them subhuman.”

Next comes the heartbreak: “The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly and shamelessly.”

You get the poignancy of the title when her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother tells her: “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”

But the surprising end — which I will not spoil for hardcore Lee fans who want to read the book — allows Atticus’s fans to breathe. Just suffice it to say the last few pages of the book leave you with the image of the demigod as human. Many reviews of the Watchman have been harsh on both Lee and Atticus, but a rereading of the book might pacify them a little bit.

So did the publisher, HarperCollins, make Lee tone down Atticus’s racist remarks to preserve his moral image? Totally denying this, in an email to New York Times, the publisher said: “Harper Lee wanted to have the novel published exactly as it was written, without editorial intervention. By confronting these challenging and complex issues at the height of the civil rights movement, the young Harper Lee demonstrated an honesty and bravery that makes this work both a powerful document of its time and a compelling piece of literature.”

In the end, if you ask is the Watchman better than its sequel … the answer is a resounding ‘No.’ But I would still buy the Watchman and keep it in my collection of treasured classics.

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