Peter St. Onge

What do we do now with Mockingbird?

In My Opinion

By Peter St. Onge

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 the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird."
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 the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird." ASSOCIATED PRESS

Like a lot of folks, we have a copy of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” at our house. It’s in the family room, back wall, middle bookshelf. Right there with the other classics.

It might not be the best-written book on our shelves, but it’s one of the most important.

It’s a glimpse into a real and racist South, but with a hero to show us the way out of that past.

It’s so enduring that just last year, more than five decades after “Mockingbird” was published, 21 babies in North Carolina were named after that hero, Atticus Finch.

Now we have a new Atticus.

He’s a central character in Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman,” which was released this week.

He’s a different man than the one who defended a black man from murder charges in “Mockingbird.”

He’s a segregationist, a racist, although if you spend enough time in the South, you know those weren’t always considered the same thing.

But no matter how you describe him, Atticus isn’t the hero we thought he was. He rubs elbows with white supremacists. He believes whites should determine how fast the civil rights movement should progress.

Fans are stunned. Some are despondent, not only over the character they loved, but the book they cherished.

What do we do now with “Mockingbird?”

It’s easy to imagine the same kind of question going through Harper Lee’s mind as the “Watchman” manuscript sat in a Monroeville, Ala., safety deposit box all these years. The book was actually a first draft of sorts; editors encouraged her to revise it into what we now know as“Mockingbird.”

But once a book is published, it also becomes the property of its readers, the people who connect with the characters and story.

Did Lee worry at some point that releasing “Watchman” would change our relationship with “Mockingbird?”

Did she fret that the Atticus in “Watchman” would make people think differently of her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a lawyer whom the Atticus in “Mockingbird” was based upon?

That’s the challenge now for us. To reconcile Atticus the hero with Atticus the racist.

It’s not that hard, really. Atticus Finch may have believed that whites and blacks aren’t equal, but he also believed a black man shouldn’t be punished for a crime he didn’t commit.

That would make him a product of his generation, both in the South and elsewhere.

It would make him a complicated man, a flawed man who did a courageous thing.

It would make him human.

That’s not nearly as satisfying, maybe, but heroes rarely are. They’re bound to disappoint us when we learn more about them. They’re bound to remind us that we’re all more than one-dimensional, including the best of us, the ones we think we know.

So what do we do with this new Atticus Finch, and with a “Mockingbird” that seems less than it was?

We remember that its lessons endure – and maybe that one of them just got a little better. It’s that people can do the right thing when it’s the most challenging thing. Even, maybe, when the challenge comes from within.

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