Will the Real Atticus Finch Please Stand up!

In Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman there are fewer clear-cut values regarding politics and racial issues than in the subsequent book, To Kill a Mockingbird, at least from the viewpoints of Atticus Finch and his brother Jack. Written in the early 1950’s, To Set a Watchman is a more naked, pre-Civil Rights look at the South, Alabama in particular of that period. To Kill a Mockingbird, though written later, has as its setting Alabama of the early 1930’s when Jean Louise was still a child and civil rights for Negroes (later called Blacks by their choice) seem not even to have been an issue in Alabama (and other places in the South) perhaps because Negroes of that era were so beaten down that rights for them were assumed by many or most to be unattainable.

Mockingbird cover

Jean Louise Finch (Scout) in To Set a Watchman is in her early twenties, having lived for a while in New York City and with a racially color-blind view that she has managed to keep from her childhood, a view she got from her father, Atticus. The clash between her liberal views and the surprisingly more racist views of her relatives provides the principal conflict of the book, which is a story about loss of innocence and the confrontation with the painful reality that parents, who we think are perfect, actually have flaws and weaknesses that can be irreconcilable with our own ideals, even if those ideals are viewed as unrealistic and simplistic by the very parents who taught them to us in the first place.


Atticus in this earlier book is not the model of wisdom and perfection he is in To Kill a Mockingbird. He tries to justify and sugarcoat his denigration of Negroes with a supposedly wider view of what Southern whites have lost through cultural shock, including scapegoats like the NAACP. This rather harsh view, which Atticus prefers to think is “reality” shatters Jean Louise’s childhood view of her father as a paragon of virtue and fairness. Superman is revealed as only a myth, a myth with powerful flaws, and Jean Louise is forced to consider finding some level of reality through a middle ground, rather than to be completely separated altogether from Atticus, who in this earlier book is a much more calculating, pragmatic, unsentimental man than the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird, and more a figure of his time and environment than the beloved icon he was to the younger Scout. This is probably a familiar dilemma to most of us, who as children didn’t see the flaws in our fathers that we saw when we became prouder and more self-righteous as young adults. I think we need to read both books to see the real Atticus Finch…a childhood view and one from that of the young adult struggling with the harsh realities of the world outside the home town.

to set a watchman cover

Readers may find less clarity of purpose in Watchman and views that are less, dare I use the phrase, “black and white.” We are left to make our own peace with the values and history we have observed and experienced in our country since the more than half a century since these two books were written.   JB

civil rights 1960's

About John

About John John Bolinger was born and raised in Northwest Indiana, where he attended Ball State University and Purdue University, receiving his BS and MA from those schools. Then he taught English and French for thirty-five years at Morton High School in Hammond, Indiana before moving to Colorado, where he resided for ten years before moving to Florida. Besides COME SEPTEMBER, Journey of a High School Teacher, John's other books are ALL MY LAZY RIVERS, an Indiana Childhood, and COME ON, FLUFFY, THIS AIN'T NO BALLET, a Novel on Coming of Age, all available on Amazon.com as paperbacks and Kindle books. Alternately funny and touching, COME SEPTEMBER, conveys the story of every high school teacher’s struggle to enlighten both himself and his pupils, encountering along the way, battles with colleagues, administrators, and parents through a parade of characters that include a freshman boy for whom the faculty code name is “Spawn of Satan,” to a senior girl whose water breaks during a pop-quiz over THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Through social change and the relentless march of technology, the human element remains constant in the book’s personal, entertaining, and sympathetic portraits of faculty, students, parents, and others. The audience for this book will certainly include school teachers everywhere, teenagers, parents of teens, as well as anyone who appreciates that blend of humor and pathos with which the world of public education is drenched. The drive of the story is the narrator's struggle to become the best teacher he can be. The book is filled with advice for young teachers based upon experience of the writer, advice that will never be found in college methods classes. Another of John's recent books is Mum's the Word: Secrets of a Family. It is the story of his alcoholic father and the family's efforts to deal with or hide the fact. Though a serious treatment of the horrors of alcoholism, the book also entertains in its descriptions of the father during his best times and the humor of the family's attempts to create a façade for the outside world. All John's books are available as paperbacks and Kindle readers on Amazon, and also as paperbacks at Barnes & Noble. John's sixth book is, Growing Old in America: Notes from a Codger was released on June 15, 2014. John’s most recent book is a novel titled Resisting Gravity, A Ghost Story, published the summer of 2018 View all posts by John →
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