Come what may, Watchman. You won't change how I feel about the Atticus I know and love.
While picking up Go Set a Watchman from Books-a-Million at midnight, some interns from the local NPR affiliate, WBHM, stopped to ask us what we were expecting from the book. I admitted that I expected to be disappointed by Atticus, based on the reviews I'd read.
Specifically I said, "I'd rather see Atticus dead than a racist."
For fear of hillbillies coming after me with their guns that Obama never took, I asked them not to include that in the segment. But I meant every word. After all, I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in fourth grade and have invested years of hero worship in Atticus ever since.
Despite getting the book at midnight, I haven't started reading it yet. However, I already know that whatever happens in Watchman, it won't change how I feel about the Atticus I've known for most of my life.
Being from a white Southern middle class family, casual racism in my community was, unfortunately, the status quo. Yet, being a reader, which studies have shown makes one more empathetic, I began noticing its problems at a fairly young age. However, because nearly all the white people I knew were casually racist--not church-burning racist, but the "some of my best friends are black" racist--growing up, I kept getting the message that I just wasn't supposed to like black people and that's just how things were. Though it never really made sense to me.
Nonetheless, my upbringing made me paranoid. I assumed that because I'm white and from the South that everyone, especially non-white people, would automatically assume I was racist. Even now, despite knowing I have nothing to worry about on that front, I still battle this fear. And after millennia of oppression at the hands of white people, I couldn't blame anyone for their assumptions of me, however wrong.
Some people love Atticus because he's the ideal father figure. Other people love him because he stood up for his beliefs in the face of grave opposition. But Atticus means so much more to me than that. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in fourth grade and it was revolutionary for me. Until that time--believe it or not--I'd never heard of a white person who was vehemently and unabashedly against racism.
For the first time in my life, I read a character that I could aspire to be when I grew up. I read a character that made me feel like there were other people like me out there--white people who weren't racist--and I just had to find them. Atticus made me feel like it was okay not to subscribe to the flawed belief systems of the community into which I was born and that making enemies for the right reasons can be a testament to your character. Atticus taught me that it's not always a compliment to oneself to be well-liked. And Atticus showed me that it was possible--normal, even!--to be white and Southern and NOT be racist. Atticus gave me permission to be myself; permission that I might not have received from the community I was born into.
I know he won't be the person I know and love in Watchman. But I have to believe that the Atticus of Mockingbird is the Atticus that Harper Lee truly wanted the world to know. After all, one doesn't sit on a book for 55 years if you're anxious to release it.
In fact, I think she had an ulterior motive for releasing the book at this time. Being a recluse, she never wanted to be worshipped by the literati and casual readers alike. She has actively avoided the public eye for decades, and has found, time and time again, that she can't trust anyone. (I'm looking at you, Marja Mills, you bitch.)
I truly believe she released Watchman knowing that it would break readers' hearts and, in so doing, she would be taken off the pedestal she never wanted to be put upon in the first place.
Even if Watchman was an act of revenge on readers for the years of harassment she suffered at the hands of too-adoring fans, I can't help but be grateful for the gift of Atticus for as long as I had him in his lionhearted state.
In her own special way, Harper Lee has shown us--through Atticus and her own self as a beloved literary figure--that our heroes will eventually let us down. But is it not worse to have had no hero at all? I think my fourth grade self would answer a resounding yes.