Does Atticus Finch’s racist turn in new novel spoil the name?
Good literature is always personal. But for some readers, the shocking turnaround taken by Atticus Finch, from noble crusader to aging racist, is particularly so.
They’re people who were so taken with the small-town lawyer of “To Kill a Mockingbird” that they named a child, a pet, or an organization after him.
But Harper Lee’s just-published sequel, “Go Set a Watchman,” features a much different character.
“This is not the Atticus I named my son for,” said Hillary Holloway, the mother of a 7-year-old Atticus, of Somerville.
That Atticus — the one who represented a wrongly accused black man in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel published in 1960 — “is the most honorable person you could imagine,” she said. “The kind of person you could picture a little kid aiming for.”
Her rising second-grader is not yet interested in his namesake — “the most important Atticus to my son is himself,” Holloway said — but she hopes when he’s older the good Atticus will inspire him, and the interloper Atticus will be forgotten.
“I am of the opinion this new unearthed version is not really going to stick,” Holloway said. “It’s not like you found out that a real person had some hidden secret and you had to reassess. I think people will choose to continue with the Atticus we came to know and love.”
Lee’s controversial new novel, only recently discovered, was the most preordered print book on Amazon since the release of the final installment of the “Harry Potter” series in 2007. But some of those customers — Holloway included — have lost their enthusiasm. “I don’t think I can read it,” she said on Monday.
“Go Set a Watchman” was written before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but the action picks up about 20 years after its setting. Atticus has not only gone to a Ku Klux Klan meeting, but expresses repugnant opinions. “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?” he asks his daughter, Jean Louise (the adult Scout of “Mockingbird”). “Do you want them in our world?”
In Charlestown, Sue Lacey is so upset about the character’s hateful turn she is relieved that her Atticus — a brindle terrier mix, known as “Mr. Atticus” in later years — died before “Go Set a Watchman” tainted the name.
“It takes away a bit of the classiness and the high morals of my handsome boy,” Lacey said.
She recalled that as a girl she knew some day she’d name a dog for the character, and when she rescued “Chester” from a shelter in Sudbury, and saw his loving and compassionate qualities, there was no question she’d met her Atticus.
“He followed in the same footprints, or paw prints, as Atticus Finch,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
But before the heartbreak, more than 40 years after the publication of “Mockingbird,” the name Atticus went on a tear. In 2004, it broke into the Social Security Administration’s list of the top 1,000 boys’ names, at number 937. By last year it was the 370th most popular name, beloved by hipsters and others looking for a literary name that had not yet become hackneyed.
Actress Mary-Louise Parker upped its profile in 2004 when she named her son William Atticus Parker. In 2008, actors Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix named their son Atticus. In June — right before the character’s reputation plunged — actors Jennifer Love Hewitt and Brian Hallisay named their son Atticus.
In 2004, Anne Wynne, a Texas lawyer interested in advancing equal rights for the LGBT community, was so enamored with Atticus Finch that she named her nonprofit for him, Atticus Circle .
When revelations about the older Atticus broke, people began getting in touch with her, Wynne said. “Friends are sending me different things from the news media, saying ‘Oh, no, your Atticus is racist,’ and ‘Should we even read it?’ ”
But she wasn’t ready to totally write him off. “Humans are flawed,” Wynne said. “That’s what makes all of us so interesting.”
That’s the open-minded approach taken by 23-year-old Atticus Swett, a rising senior at Tufts University and a son of Richard Swett, a former Democratic congressman and ambassador from New Hampshire.
“My name has always given me a sense of responsibility and a desire to be good,” Atticus wrote in an e-mail from Hungary, where he’s interning in the US Embassy.
“It hasn’t made my life,” he wrote, but “it has caused me to desire to be a fair person, to try to understand life from many different perspectives, and to assume the best of others in all circumstances.”
That includes the newly revealed Atticus: “I think it would be too harsh to say that I am disappointed in the new Atticus,” he wrote. “I am looking forward to reading the book, and understanding this new, expanded — and possibly tarnished — portrayal of Atticus Finch.”
Meanwhile, with reports swirling that Lee may have written a third, as-yet-unpublished novel, Holloway, the Somerville mother, recalled the wisdom of a friend, who told her it’s best to stick to the ancient Greeks when naming a child.
“No one is going to suddenly come up with something bad about Homer,” she quipped.