Meta-Mysteries: Bill Cosby & The Real Atticus Finch

I have not read Go Set A Watchman. I plan to. In the meantime, I am enjoying the hype that is carpeting the media. I don’t think the publication of Harper Lee’s first complete effort as a novelist could have been better timed. Suddenly it all seems to come together: the boiling conversation on race relations, the meaning of Southern culture, and the role of illusion in art and life.

The question of hour is “Who is the real Atticus Finch?”. Serious people are engaged in ‘some really meta’ (self-referential) contortions to find the answer to this question in the hope of unlocking the greater mystery of who we Americans are.

I want to play too.

The publisher says there are two distinct versions of Atticus: the rough draft and the finished product. Story goes a first-time writer cobbles together a good story, but her editor suggests a considerable re-write. She obediently responds. And she knocks it out of the park. The author prepares a fine story mostly as the report of a child’s recollections. That was To Kill A Mockingbird. The point of view is that of a nine year old kid, but the teller of the tale is someone who reflecting on those memories as an adult. The memories and the reflections compose a beautiful story that is clearly drawn, lovingly rendered, and topical. The character of Atticus is one of principle, competence, integrity and compassion.

Once this child’s representation of Atticus was embraced and embedded in the popular mind, along comes the alternate version of Atticus—this one seen through the eyes of an adult—an adult who has been away from him for a while. This Atticus is also older and he has some warts the child might have overlooked.

Until I read the new book, I cannot say much about Atticus 2.0 apart from repeating the dire warnings in the press: Be Disappointed! Be Very Disappointed! He’s not your Daddy’s Atticus! (?)

Within the art world there is concern about whether Harper Lee is Jean Louise “Scout” Finch? If so, are these stories really about Harper Lee joined into a continuous tale about a woman distilling her Maycomb memories and coming to terms with her father’s true character? Are both books literary devices to present the South she knew and treated with a mixture of sadness and delight? Or are these books really about how anyone can awaken from the confusion caused by childhood recollection morphing into a rather different, hardened reality?

Maybe these two books were never intended to be read together? As a designer, I know the feeling. You spend a great deal of time investing yourself in the creation of a thing which ultimately proves unworkable or unacceptable, so you start over. Sometimes you cannibalize from the first try–no need to reinvent the wheel. Other times you conscientiously strike out in a fresh direction. Creating is very often a non-linear process. My teachers used to say the engineer’s mind is about finding the shortest distance between two points–it’s all about producing cause and effect efficiently. An architect’s mind is about the longest distance between two points–it’s about the journey, the discovery, the invention. I could accept it if Harper Lee was really taking two shots in the same general direction and producing two independent accounts of her vision. I have heard many writers say they really don’t know what their characters are going to do once they set them loose on the page. Sometimes the writer knows where the story will end up, but has to discover from the characters how to get there. It’s entirely acceptable to have the same set of characters make different choices, blaze different trails, but still end up where the writer wants them to go.

Others I read are worried that Atticus 2.0 will destroy the credibility the Mockingbird Atticus and with it our faith in what we ourselves believe. It’s like remembering a funny Bill Cosby joke but feeling guilty about laughing at it. I recall Cosby being on Johnny Carson once and they were discussing how audiences can behave. Carson said something like, “Don’t you hate it when you tell a really good joke and the audience just sits there, dead silent?” Cosby responded by saying he knew what humor was. He was a professional with a great deal of experience and success on the subject. He knew ‘funny’ and if the audience doesn’t laugh, there is something wrong with them. Many in my generation thought we ‘knew’ Bill Cosby from our casual contact with his persona, and we somehow extended that good will to the rest of him so much so that we feel betrayed by the revelations of his off-stage behavior. It is this same sort of reaction to Atticus 2.0 that many lovers of Mockingbird fear.

I read one preview of Go Set a Watchman that says the books are really intended to be sequential and complementary. It suggested Watchman presents a mature Scout who must consciously chooses the grace and understanding of her memory to be her guide forward…she must acquire the wisdom to know the difference between what she can and cannot change.

If that is the message,it may not be well received. Harper Lee’s books recall the dawn of our modern unrest over race. They are being revived in a particularly tense moment when it seems like we have learned nothing in the intervening years. I anticipate a segment of the reading public who will feel betrayed by Harper Lee because the Atticus they held in such high esteem all these years was really the persona of integrity which only concealed a principled bigotry. It will be interesting if that is the final verdict on Atticus, and if we feel guilty for having been both fooled and lifted by the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird.

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