And now we’re reminded of how erroneous that assumption was. Harper Lee—or, more specifically, the Harper Lee industrial complex, an amalgam of author and lawyer and publishing house—has given readers another Atticus. An Atticus who is both distressingly new and distressingly old, and who is, in pretty much every way possible, the antithesis of the legend and the lore. This Atticus, now aged 72, spouts “abhorrent views on race and segregation,” The New York Times’ review of Harper Lee’s latest novel, Go Set a Watchman, announced, with equal parts shock and sadness. This Atticus has rejected the work of the NAACP. He has attended a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. His fatherliness has eroded into paternalism. “The Negroes down here,” this Atticus observes, “are still in their childhood as a people.”
What are we—we readers and watchers and admirers of Atticus Finch as a father and a fighter, we who have embraced his heady symbolism, we who have named our children in his honor, we who have, finally, no say at all in his fictive fate—to make of that shift? What are we to do upon learning that the man who was so stubborn in his sense of justice has chosen, in the end, to live on the wrong side of history? Syllabi and screens and the soft promises of imagined worlds have made Atticus an intimate figure in many lives; suddenly, though—literally overnight—there are multiple Atticuses (Attici?), and they represent not just competing characters, but competing cosmologies. The canon—and, you could add with only very slight melodrama, the culture—has been dented.
That is not simply a question of literature. Atticus has risen in popularity as a boys’ name in recent years, spurred in part by celebrities (William Atticus Parker, son of Mary-Louise and Billy Crudup; Atticus Affleck, son of Summer Phoenix and Casey) and Brooklynites. In 2004, it broke into the Social Security Administration’s list of the 1,000 top names for boys, at 937; by 2014, it occupied spot 370. The New York Times tells the story of 3-year-old Atticus Campbell, whose mother had joked, upon hearing of the upcoming release of Watchman, “Oh, no, I hope Atticus didn’t turn bad or something.” The Boston Globe reports on Hillary Holloway, who named her 7-year-old son Atticus because he “is the most honorable person you could imagine — the kind of person you could picture a little kid aiming for.” Slate introduces us to Atticus Herbon—so named, according to his father, because Atticus “has all the qualities that I would want my son to have: He defends those who can’t defend themselves, and he’s honest, and he shows courage.”
As The Guardian wondered, plaintively and revealingly: “What happens now to people and businesses named after Atticus Finch?”
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On the one hand, that kind of wondering is common. We are, for better or for worse, no strangers to the inconvenient humanity of our heroes. Thomas Jefferson, the patriot and the slave owner. Steve Jobs, the genius and the jerk. Roman Polanski. Paula Deen. Bill Clinton. Oscar Pistorius. Floyd Mayweather. Woody Allen.