Yet apparently none of this – not the demographic facts, Atticus’ denial of being a radical, nor the iconoclast’s commentary – prepared readers for the July publication of Go Set a Watchman, which depicts Atticus as a reactionary defender of Jim Crow set against the advance of civil rights. Many readers of Mockingbird never fully accounted for the fact that we receive our understanding of Atticus through the eyes of his eight-year old daughter, whose failure to make the above inferences is not evidence that Atticus is free of racism, but of her limited understanding. These readers projected their own views of racial equality onto Atticus, willing into existence the anachronism of a southerner born in the nineteenth century having the racial views of, say, a liberal baby boomer. I suspect that some readers only remember the film version in any event, which does not contain Atticus’ convincing denial of radicalism. And it may be particularly difficult to imagine the liberal Californian Gregory Peck, who portrayed Atticus (listed by the American Film Institute in 2003 as the greatest hero in American film), as thinking about race as a 1930s white southerner did.
While it might then appear that I am in accord with the iconoclastic critics of the Mockingbird Atticus, I am not. I understand the misreading of Atticus in a way that parts company with them. The problem is not, as these critics seem to think, that Mockingbird readers saw Atticus as a hero because they mistakenly thought he was a true racial egalitarian. The problem is that the readers saw Atticus as a radical egalitarian because, for other reasons, he was a hero, and it alleviates cognitive dissonance to believe our heroes are unsullied and uncompromised. Which is to say that, despite my criticisms of the Mockingbird Atticus, he is heroic. Facing considerable risks, he tried to save a man he hardly knew from a false charge of a capital crime.
I have not read Go Set A Watchman, but I'm fairly confident I won't read a more intriguing review of it than this one. The early reviews, at least among my peers, was unanimously harsh. Richard McAdams offers a more complex verdict on the book, one well worth reading to the end of his review for.
I also enjoyed this bit.
When it comes to preventing or correcting injustice, sometimes the world works this way: the courageous but compromised individual accomplishes more than the principled but timid one. Here, I think of the fact that the Yad Vashem in Israel bestows the honorific “righteous among the nations” on non-Jews for having risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, not for holding the best, most enlightened views of Jews. There was never reason to think Atticus had the most enlightened views of African-Americans, but when the racist mob came for Tom Robinson, he did more than speak out.