The publishing world is in a frenzy. The most long-awaited follow up by a living author has gone on sale today. Go Set A Watchman is Harper Lee’s second novel. Her first was To Kill A Mockingbird published sixty five years ago. It enjoys iconic status. Indeed, the protagonist of the book, Atticus Finch, the southern lawyer who successfully defends a black man accused of raping a white woman has been elevated to hero status both among civil rights activists at the time and almost all liberal thinking readers ever since.
It is therefore something of a shock to find him apparently portrayed in Go Set A Watchman as a racist bigot. This has sparked controversy. Should we now see Atticus Finch as a more nuanced character? Or a flawed hero?
Does the fact that this book, though published second after a long interval, was in fact written first and subsequently set aside by the author on the advice of her publisher and re-written with a focus on the events which were to become To Kill A Mockingbird mean that such interpretations are invalid? Is it like D H Lawrence’s The First Lady Chatterley to be more correctly seen as a first draft that was superseded?
I don’t know. And I am loathe to read this second book. I don’t want my view of Atticus to be tarnished. In a world where there are few public figures who can stand upright in the glare of the spotlight and not find some unsavoury secret come crawling out, I want to have a hero to look up to.
I know if I want to understand and sympathise with flawed heroes I can find them in Trollope’s writing. No writer, I think, manages this difficult art so well. But I also want, sometime, to have a shining example to follow. In my childhood I had Scott Tracey, pilot of Thunderbird 1. The fact that he was a puppet and you could see the strings on screen didn’t matter. He represented a set of values that placed care for others even at risk to yourself above personal ambition. That was good for me to grow up with. Later I had Lin Chung, the outlaw warrior of The Water Margin whose heroic TV exploits against a “cruel and corrupt government” invariably followed the path of the Tao, seeking to do the right thing, with the bigger picture always in mind, whatever the personal cost. Then I had Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s novel.
And I don’t want to let go of that Atticus Finch. He is a fictional character and I want to keep my fiction simple in this case.