‘My Atticus’

Go Set a Watchman is a threat not just to readers’ heroic idea of Atticus Finch, but also to the many, many children who have been named in his honor.

Universal Pictures

Atticus Finch. The man who has been dubbed one of the “all-time coolest heroes in pop culture” and the “Best. Dad. Ever” and “the greatest hero of American film,” the man whose wisdom concerns everything from “manliness” to “leadership” to “life” itself. The man to whom many practicing lawyers have attributed their interest in legal work and who, over the years, has lent his name not only to children and pets, but also to production companies and vintage shops and clothing lines and nonprofits and bookstores and bars. The man who taught many people—young people, in particular—that most fundamental of life lessons: that justice must find its basis, if it is to have any hope at all, in empathy.

“You never really understand a person,” Atticus once said, “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

But that is the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird, the beloved novel and movie and meme. The Atticus who, at some hazy point in American history, made the epic leap from “literary character” to “legend”—smoothed of edges, lightened of humanity, diffused into literature and life as a kind of universal father figure. We acclaimed Atticus; in the process, though, we claimed him. He was Maycomb’s, yes, and he was Scout’s, and he was Harper Lee’s, and he was Hollywood’s. But he was also, we figured, ours.

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?”

* * *

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.

Bill Cosby.

Bill Cosby.

Bill Cosby.

Atticus Finch is a singular case, though, because literature—classic literature, in particular—should, theoretically, be insulated from the decisions and revisions of historical assessment. We can change our minds about Hamlet or Gatsby or Lizzy Bennet, but these characters—these texts—won’t, themselves, change. That is the compact we make with our canon. Authors own the universes they create, we assume, and whatever we may say about the death of the author in theory, the death of an author in reality effectively closes the door on any changes. Fan fiction is qualified as such for a reason.

The flip side of that, though, is that a living author—be it J.K. Rowling or George Lucas or Harper Lee—can put, as it were, a dent in the universes. The flip side is that characters, and the worlds they have created, can change. Literally overnight. Atticus can go from a symbol of the best in us to a symbol of the worst, in the blink of a Times review.

“There has never been a situation like this,” Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard, told the Chicago Tribune.

What does that mean for all the Attici out there in the world? Many of them—and their parents, on their behalf—have chosen to embrace the nuance that a complicated Atticus represents. Pauline Lewis, a barrister in England who named her law firm after Atticus, noted that “all great characters have weakness and imperfection.” (She added: “Even if Atticus Finch is not the guy we thought he was, his message still stands.”) Anne Wynne, a lawyer in Texas, put it even more bluntly: “Humans are flawed,” she said. “That’s what makes all of us so interesting.”

Others, though, have simply rejected the new Atticus Finch. They are simply claiming the old Atticus—and the old Maycomb, and the old Mockingbird—as their own. They are claiming, in the process, that heroes can be qualified. As Atticus Rowe put it, exhibiting the principled tenacity of the man who gave him his name, “I will keep the Atticus we know from To Kill a Mockingbird as my Atticus.”