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Ann Cannon: Trying to understand the new Atticus in ‘Go Set a Watchman’

First Published      Last Updated Jul 15 2015 10:44 am

I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the first time when I was 14 years old.

Ah. Fourteen. There's no other age like it. My brother remembers one of his medical-school professors spending an entire class period discussing the pathology of 14-year-old females. Clearly Herr Professor Doktor was having daughter/daddy issues at home and used class time to vent.

Whenever I remember myself at 14, I think of two girls — Outside Me and Inside Me. Outside Me was a teenage cliché — noisy and silly with a taste for drama. But Inside Me was earnestly asking some of life's big questions. Who was I? How did I fit into my world? How should I treat the people in that world? Who did I want to become?

And then I found "To Kill a Mockingbird." I was so taken with the book that I refused to put it down. I even took it to a family reunion where I sneaked away and read it until my dad marched me back inside where I wondered if I was bold enough to ask one of my own relatives to "pass the damn ham, please"— just like Scout did in front of her Uncle Jack.

(Answer: I wasn't.)

By the time I finished "To Kill a Mockingbird," I'd discovered a new hero for myself: Atticus Finch. I loved him because he was the very definition of the word honorable. And now Atticus Finch returns (this week!) in a "new" novel by Harper Lee, "Go Set a Watchman."

To tell you the truth, the publication of this book (announced by HarperCollins in February) has made me nervous from the get-go. Would it add to the legacy of Lee's iconic novel? Or disappoint? Should I read it? Or give it a miss?

Adding to my sense of unease was the suggestion in some quarters that Harper Lee might not have fully understood what was happening with her "newly discovered" manuscript, which was actually written before "To Kill a Mockingbird." In fact, "Mockingbird" grew out of "Go Set a Watchman" because Lee's first editor urged her to rework Jean Louise's flashbacks of her childhood and turn those into a novel.

So, yes. An older Atticus Finch returns to us after all these decades, and according to a recent piece in The New York Times, he's a racist who asks his grown-up daughter, Jean Louise (aka Scout), things like, "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?"

Oh, Atticus! Say it ain't so! And also why? How did the Mockingbird's Atticus become this Atticus?

I have a theory.

As someone who has written a few novels, here's what I know. The story you first set out to write often morphs into something else. You think you've started down one road and surprise! Suddenly you find yourself on another road entirely. Things change — sometimes dramatically — including the characters. Especially the characters.

Knowing how the process works from personal experience, I can't help but wonder if the younger Atticus who appears "To Kill a Mockingbird" is, in fact, closer to the character Harper Lee finally imagined.

We'll never know, of course.

But I like to think that this, at least, is a possibility.