Is There a Real Atticus Finch?
Originally posted July 29, 2015
In the weeks since HarperCollins released Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, devoted readers around the world have voiced their dismay with the “new” Atticus. My Facebook News Feed has been filled with comments like this one from a former student: “A bit nervous about reading the new book. I love Mockingbird and Atticus so much. What do you think?”
Here’s what I think: Atticus Finch is a fictional character, a creation of Harper Lee’s imaginative vision. The Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird is not the same Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman. These are two different novels with two different characters; they just happen to share the same name.
But, you might ask, isn’t Watchman a rough draft of Mockingbird? How can they be different books?
The Large, Loose, Baggy Monster
The answer to these questions hinges on revision, and how writers of fiction have infinite choices in character, plot, setting, dialogue, and theme as they’re writing their novels. As Henry James once noted, novels are “large, loose, baggy monsters.” During the writing process, there’s no one way into and out of story. For many of us who write, rough drafts—or even multiple revisions—are about experimentation, finding our way into our characters and their stories.
When I wrote my Civil War novel, A Voice From the Border, the original draft was a very different “book” with a very different focus. It included a racist and sexist grandfather, and a sub-plot that centered on his past liaison with a slave woman. Reeves, the main character in the original draft as well as the published book, discovered the truth about this liaison and its impact on her family.
Regina Griffin, my editor at Holiday House, wisely suggested that I cut the grandfather character and this entire subplot. It took me awhile to come to the same conclusion, but when I did, Reeves’s story came into sharper focus. I better understood what the novel should really be about. The published version of Voice is, in fact, a different novel than its original.
From most accounts, it sounds as if Harper Lee was also influenced by a fine editor—Tay Hohoff of Lippincott—and launched into an extensive revision of her original novel, Go Set a Watchman, at her suggestion. This isn’t an unusual situation. Editors play a huge and influential role behind the scenes, encouraging writers to dig deeper into their manuscripts, to find the most compelling stories, characters, and settings that are sometimes buried beneath the surface of a manuscript—or in a character’s backstory (Jean Louise’s, for example).
Of course, cutting a character as I did from an early draft is a far more modest creative transformation than the imaginative leap of faith Harper Lee undertook with Atticus Finch—recasting the flawed, elderly father in Watchman as the heroic and noble single dad in Mockingbird. Yet there are literary precedents for this kind of transformation.
English novelist Barbara Pym created a pair of memorable secondary characters—the elderly Miss Doggett and her thirty-something companion Jessie Morrow—in Jane and Prudence, published in 1953. But in early 1940, characters with the same names—Miss Doggett and Jessie Morrow—appeared as central characters in a novel Barbara Pym failed to publish during the early days of World War II. The book—Crampton Hodnet—was eventually published in 1985, five years after Barbara Pym’s death.
The Jessie Morrow of this earlier novel is a very different character with a far more noble and appealing personality than the Jessie Morrow of Jane and Prudence. As Hazel Holt diplomatically writes in the introduction to Crampton Hodnet, Barbara Pym redrew Jessie Morrow “from a more ironic and more suble point of view” for the novel she published in 1953.1
There are clearly two distinct and different Jessie Morrows, each with her own unique character. The Jessie Morrow of Crampton Hodnet wisely refuses an offer of marriage in one of the funniest proposal scenes in British literature. The Jessie Morrow of Jane and Prudence entraps an eligible bachelor, and steals him away from the lovely Prudence Bates. “’What Miss Morrow had, we shall never know,’” observes one character to another in the later book. “’She may have stooped to ways that Miss Bates wouldn’t have dreamed of.’”2
An example that is closer to my heart—and perhaps closer to the hearts of many readers here—is the transformation author Laura Ingalls Wilder made to her fictional counterpart in The First Four Years.
The Two Lauras
The Laura of the Little House books, which Wilder aimed at middle grade and young adult readers, is smart, fearless, daring, affectionate, and devoted to her family. Her romance with Almanzo Wilder is sweet and heartwarming. She embraces his dreams to be a farmer, yet remains true to herself. She refuses to pledge obedience to Almanzo in their wedding ceremony because “’… I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment.’”3
The Laura of these books, all published within Wilder’s lifetime, is, for the most part, consistent with the Laura in Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s autobiography, completed before she began writing fiction for young readers. But the Laura of The First Four Years, published 14 years after Wilder’s death, is an entirely different character. She is sharp, shrewd, cautious, and worried about money.
When the Almanzo Wilder of this novel (who has a slightly edgier personality here too) asks for Laura’s hand, she initially objects because she doesn’t want to marry a farmer. When he asks why, this more skeptical Laura replies, “’Because a farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides, a farmer never has any money.’”4
Wilder wrote The First Four Years for adult readers, which partially explains this new and different Laura. As I wrote in Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, Wilder appears to have based her approach to writing adult fiction on her daughter’s novel, Let The Hurricane Roar, which relied heavily on material from Pioneer Girl and was also written for adult readers. The parallels between the two novels are striking. In both Wilder’s and Lane’s novels, the main female characters struggle with their husbands’ homesteading dreams, and ultimately embrace the harsh realities of frontier life with a grim kind of courage.
Is the Laura Ingalls of The First Four Years a distinct character from the Laura Ingalls of the Little House books? Undoubtedly. At a recent panel on this subject at LauraPalooza in July, most attendees came to the same conclusion. A show of hands at the end of the panel revealed that most people in the audience didn’t consider it the final book in the Little House series. That honor went to These Happy Golden Years. The Laura Ingalls of The First Four Years shouldn’t be confused, they concluded, with the Laura that ended the Little House series.
A Revelation of Different Realities
Does this mean that readers should avoid The First Four Years because its Laura Ingalls isn’t as inspiring or noble as the Laura Ingalls of the Little House books? Of course not. Read in context, The First Four Years gives readers a different story, a different glimpse into the fictional truth of life in the American West. It also reveals Wilder’s depth as a novelist, her willingness to experiment with character, plot, and theme for adult readers. I believe the same is true of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. She created two characters named Atticus Finch, and they reveal different realities about the American South to their readers.
Novels indeed are large, loose, and baggy—especially when writers are caught up in the act of writing them. As readers, we need to understand that the process of writing isn’t tidy, and a character’s journey through the twists and turns of a novel isn’t necessarily inevitable. It’s just that the best novels, the most enduring novels—like To Kill A Mockingbird—make it seem that way.
1. Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet (New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1985), p. vi.
2. Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 209.
3. Laura Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), p. 270.
4. Laura Ingalls Wilder, The First Four Years (New York: HarperTrophy, 1971), p. 4.