On Killing the Mockingbird

Atticus Finch is my hero. To Kill A Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book. Like many before and after me, it was one of the rites of passage of high school English. And like some, it was because of that book that I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. The casting of the Academy-award winning film is probably the best book-to-screen adaptation that I have ever seen. Gregory Peck IS Atticus Finch. He (Finch/Peck) is the consummate father, citizen, and lawyer the literary and film world has ever known…

…I can never be Atticus Finch–I don’t think anyone can. But maybe I can channel his presence through my persona, my alter ego: Dadicus Grinch. I want to be the kind of man he was, yet I find I am a bundle of contradictions: a friendly curmudgeon, an open-minded critic, a pessimistic optimist, an angry peacemaker… I have the best intentions, but I will always have my demons. Here’s a chance to put some of them to rest.  –excerpted from my first blog post,                         August 18, 2012

So, here we are, on the literary cusp of a sad day for Finch fans. I’ve spent the last week reading reviews, interviews, and the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel/postquel to TKAM. And like the rest of the world, I was saddened and dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch advocated segregation. The headlines screamed: Atticus Finch was a bigot. “No!” I cried. “Not Atticus!”

Yet, after having some time to reflect, I must admit, I am a bit relieved. Atticus Finch is a literary hero, but he has turned into a paragon, a demigod. Decade after decade, he remained the ultimate father and citizen. And therein lies the problem. He was PERFECT. He lacked any flaws. Sure, one could admire him, and aspire to be like him, but, in the end, his persona was unattainable–even for Atticus himself. This does not sit well with the world: We like our heroes without flaw, beyond reproach. We seem to forget that heroes are human, and, therefore, fallible.

I am disheartened to learn that Atticus was not whole in his support for African Americans, but I am even more dismayed by society’s need to bring this book to the fore. The elusive and reclusive Harper Lee spent the better part of her life shielding it from public view. For more than half a century, Ms. Lee was content to let To Kill A Mockingbird remain her solitary novel. Speculation has even arisen as to Lee’s current mental and physical state. Thus, for me, the question remains: Was this really her intent? Why would a very private, humble woman finally agree to publish a work that will reshape her entire legacy?

Lee’s perplexing decision reminds me of the mockingbird referenced in her classic.

As Scout recalls:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'”(90).

I can’t help but think of Harper Lee’s voice as the mockingbird in question. For most of her adult life, her solitary novel served to6320407696_c23c605e65_n create music for generations of readers to enjoy. By breathing life into a young Scout and her father, Miss Lee sang her heart out for us.

Yet, we live in a world of insatiable appetites, one where greed trumps integrity, and our desire to know everything denies one’s request for privacy. In so doing, we have killed the mockingbird Lee tried to protect for over 50 years.

Sure, there is a chance that Lee knows exactly what she is doing. That by bringing Watchman to light, she is finally giving a complete, well-rounded perspective of the character. As many of you know, he was modeled after her father. Perhaps Lee wanted to pin down the wings that we have given St. Atticus, and make him more believable, fully developed–a truer reflection of a noble, but flawed, Southern white man of his time.

Now, you may be wondering if I plan on reading the book. I do. Yet, I will do so with a heavier heart. I am already mourning the loss of the man I have thought of often as I parent; the man I aspired to be. Truth is, like many, my sense of indulgence will get the better of me. Unfortunately, I am a product of my environment. I am human.

It turns out Atticus was, too.

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17 comments

  1. It’s been a full five years since I read To Kill a Mockingbird in its entirety. The last time I read Harper Lee’s classic I was 4’10”, tucked my t-shirt into my athletic socks, and refused to wear a coat when it was snowing. Yet the unforgettable lines of this untouchable novel still resonate with me as I pack my bags for college. I love Atticus. The man is golden, he’s not meant to be tarnished, and yet here we are. I picked up my pre-ordered copy from Barnes and Noble at 9:00 this morning, pushed the speed limit coming home, and sat down to read. I froze. I haven’t passed the first page. I mean, I’ve even thought about naming my kid Atticus, and to be honest it’s still at the top of my list. For now, though, I’m going to see what an extra eight inches and pair of jeans has done to my mindset, and reread To Kill a Mockingbird. As for Atticus, even Superman has his kryptonite. If he’s prejudiced, so be it. I hope it will only make his actions in the courtroom more endearing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel conflicted, as you do. The idea that the publishing powers-that-be took advantage of Harper Lee is what made me most hesitant in purchasing – and reading – Go Set a Watchman. But I am reading it, and this is how I’ve chosen to look at the situation. If it’s true that Atticus is as terrible as all the reviews seem to indicate, then I’m going to take that as a sign of hope. How? If Go Set a Watchman was written before TKAM, then that means that maybe Lee eventually found the moral center of a character that she initially envisioned as something else. So I’m reading Go Set a Watchman not as a sequel or even as as a prequel, but as a draft. And like all drafts, they evolve. Like Atticus. Perhaps.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I love your review of the reviews. What a balanced and compassionate way to see the landscape that we’ve all waited to wander in. I’m looking forward to the read, but am purposely waiting a bit longer. I figure if I draw out the suspense a tad more the taste will be richer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m going to do everything I can to resist reading this book because I believe in the Harper Lee that didn’t want it published, who lived her life with the comfort of having published one book that was a classic and then walked away from the whole thing. And I tend to believe the versions of current events that question her current competence and the less than honest intent of those who are pushing to publish this. I do not want to benefit them. That said, the twist it takes in the portrayal of Atticus intrigues me — it makes for a far more accurate depiction of those troubled times.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I will. I’ve resisted the initial “first day of publication” rush. I have this feeling I may pick it up months from now. But for now … I don’t think I’m going to.

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  5. Enjoyed your thoughts on this, Michael. I’m just glad literature is being debated in the mainstream! But also saddened to think that perhaps this is not what Harper Lee wanted. Her desire for obscurity seems to have wetted our appetites in a way that does not feel quite right.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mike,
    Happy summer! We are visiting our house in Devon. Saturday afternoon we are going to have a pool party so people we like can perhaps come over and enjoy the pool. I’m sorry it’s such late notice, but we’ve been having pool issues that are now resolved enough to have people over. Time is 1:00-5:00. Casual. Stay how long you want. We’ll have snacks and a few non-alcoholic beverages.
    I know Jimmy would love to see you (and Marc and I would too).
    Cheers,
    Polly

    Sent from my iPhone

    Like

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