“Remembering ATTICUS FINCH”
By Jerry Gervase
I would put Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird on any personal list of favorite books. It might even be at the very top of the list if I limited it to only novels.
It is “Christmas in July” was my first reaction upon hearing of the publication of Ms. Lee’s new novel. After 55 years, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book Oprah Winfrey called America’s novel, has finally written a sequel. Go Set a Watchman was released on July 14. The publisher ordered a first print run of two million copies.
The book is already creating a buzz among Harper Lee fans. Our small local library has ordered six copies and has 20 requests for the book.
Cynthia Fernandes, of Pilgrim’s Way Book Store in Carmel said she has ordered forty copies. “Since we’re a small store, we usually order a couple of copies at a time of a new novel,” she said. “So the number we’ve ordered is quite significant.”
Readers’ high expectations for Lee’s new novel are deservedly high since Mockingbird not only won the Pulitzer Prize, it was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by Library Journal. Harper Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature. Sales for Mockingbird surpassed 40 million copies.
I was ready to join the waiting with bated breath pre-pub crowd and order a copy until I read a review of the new book. It wasn’t a negative review, but it describes the changes in Atticus Finch 20 years after Mockingbird. I did not like what has become of this literary role model. Let me explain.
My admiration for the character, Atticus Finch, was not diminished by the movie. While reading the book I had pictured the tall taciturn actor, Gregory Peck in the role of the resolute small town lawyer standing steadfast against the racial prejudice that had condemned a black man before his trial had started. No one else embodied the image of Finch I had created in my mind’s eye as Peck did. The studio’s original choice for the Finch role was Rock Hudson. I’m glad Hollywood got it right for one of my all time favorite films.
Although the story is about racial prejudice and Finch’s integrity in taking an unpopular stance by defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, it is also about the innocence of widower Finch’s two young children: Scout, a six year old girl, and Jem, a 10 year old boy, and how that innocence is intruded upon by the trial.
That innocence is captured by Director Robert Mulligan’s opening shot over the film’s credits. The shot shows an overhead view of a small girl opening and peering into an old cigar box filled with childhood trinkets and treasures. Then in the best use of extreme close-up I had seen in movies, the camera slowly tracks along the assortment of items in the cigar box. I don’t remember them all, but there were several striped marbles, an Indian Head and a Lincoln head penny, a broken pocket watch on a chain, a harmonica, and a silver whistle.
The children who think their father is an ordinary man who can’t do anything but explain things better than most people, discover he is the best shot in the county, and his compassionate defense of the defendant wins him the respect and admiration of the children.
In Go Set A Watchman Atticus Finch has become a bigot, with repugnant views on race and segregation. He is the antithesis of the Atticus Finch I admired in Mockingbird. The book review states “The depiction of Atticus in Watchman makes for disturbing reading, and for Mockingbird fans, it’s especially disorienting.”
I will read the book eventually. For now, though, I prefer to keep my memory of Atticus Finch intact and not be disoriented by who he has become. There is a scene in “Mockingbird” where Finch tells his son, Jem, how his own father told him it was a sin to kill a mockingbird because, “Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”
That is how I want to remember Atticus Finch: a gentle father, an honorable advocate for the oppressed. I’ll put a hold on his dissonant characterization in Watchman while remembering the sweet music of a mockingbird.
by Jerry Gervase