Attacking Harper Lee's Atticus: What happens when characters overshadow their creators

Attacking Harper Lee's Atticus: What happens when characters overshadow their creators
Attacking Harper Lee's Atticus: What happens when characters overshadow their creators
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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Intermixed with the excitement about Harper Lee's new book, To Set A Watchman, which is actually an old book since the manuscript dates back to 1957, is widespread dismay that the man who shone with a clear sense of purpose and fair play in To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout's father and lawyer Atticus Finch, is supposedly painted with racist overtones in the new book. To many people over at the last three generations (Mockingbird was published in 1960), Atticus is the epitome of a good man, a white man who defended a black man accused of that most heinous of crimes in the Alabama of then (perhaps arguably now, too): that of raping a white woman. He does so in the face of the townspeople's open disapprobation.

But that’s not what this article is about. What got me thinking was an article in The New Yorker in August 2009 by veteran staffer Malcolm Gladwell, which is now suddenly relevant again, and therefore, back in circulation. In the article titled `The Courthouse Ring', Gladwell castigates Atticus Finch, who has long been a role model for the legal profession ever since Mockingbird became a worldwide bestseller.  

In a rambling piece, Gladwell says Finch is no equal rights defender, that his stand on racial inequality was diluted. When Finch lost the case he was fighting for Tom Robinson, he quietly left the courtroom, head bowed. If Finch were a true civil-rights hero, avers Gladwell, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. Gladwell writes, "He’s not …  looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s …. looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds."

Me, I would have called Atticus Finch a pacifist, nothing more, nothing less. He did what he thought was right. He defended a black man who he thought was innocent of charges that would have seen the man hang. Atticus Finch knew the dice was loaded against his client. After all, he was the man who told his young daughter Scout, "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what." But he did what he did anyway.

Actually, that makes him a hero in my book. 

What struck me as somewhat odd about Gladwell`s article was that he repeatedly called Finch out for what he did and didn’t do, when arguing in defence of Tom Robinson. And therein lies the rub. Atticus Finch does not exist in flesh and blood. He is but a character in Harper Lee`s beautiful coming- of- age story,  set in the Alabama of the 1930s.  Somewhere in the same article, Gladwell talks of George Orwell criticizing Charles Dickens. Yes, but that is one author criticizing another. Now if Orwell had been condemning Uriah Heep for being extremely manipulative and a humbug, that would have been another matter altogether.

So, let us not pillory this imaginary character, or any imaginary character for that matter, for their sins of omission and commission. Let us reserve that ire instead for the authors who make these characters behave the way they do.

It was Arthur Conan Doyle who first faced this peculiar conundrum, when letters started pouring into 221B,  Baker Street, addressed to Mr Sherlock Holmes, requesting that he take up sundry cases. Much newsprint print and discussion was expended on Holmes' occasional use of cocaine, his obsession with hoarding all documents, his anti-social ways. Today, droves of tourists flock to the residence which of course, is a museum to the icon who never existed.

Then there is the case of JD Salinger who looked in danger of drowning in the feelings elicited by his creation, Holden Caulfield, hero of Catcher in the Rye. Holden's alienation, his distant affection for his family, the fact that he looked set for a less than successful innings in life, were imprinted on the psyche of readers everywhere. The Holden Caulfield Syndrome was born, his post-traumatic stress disorder discussed far and wide. Salinger fans know that other characters (mostly from the Glass family) like Seymour and Fanny were very interesting too, but to the end of his reclusive life, Salinger had Holden's shadow rising up from behind him.

Closer to date, there is JK Rowling and the boy wizard she created. The spinoffs don’t stop at merchandise, memes and suchlike. To my mind, the real misfortune is that the fiction Rowling has crafted after the Potter books, very readable fiction at that, suffers endless comparison to what was clearly a magnum opus set of books from this author.

Funny when  you think of it, that people don’t write articles condemning Sauron for encouraging mayhem, send a letter to the editor about George RR Martin's set of incendiary warriors or mail crucial tip-offs addressed to G. Smiley or J. Bond, c/o MI5.  

So, let`s give Atticus Finch a break, shall we? He is but what Harper Lee has made him. No more, no less.

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