There are complicated books, and there are simple ones. Both can be great, but the simple ones are often remembered more fondly. Although it is important that thoughtful people write, and read, about human nature in all its ambivalence and complexity, offering us nuanced and realistic portraits of character in the great Russian realist mode, I have long believed and argued that the best vehicles for really challenging and transforming human attitudes may be the stories that simplify such dilemmas. Ultimately, we aspire to a world of equality, justice and peace. A child, faced with an account of Nazis separating Jewish children from their parents and their homes in the Holocaust, will cry, “But that’s not fair!” Faced with accounts of societies where black people are routinely denied the dignity and opportunities offered to white ones, they will struggle to comprehend something so obviously wrong.
As those children grow up, hopefully some of them will want to change such things. To do so, in a cruel world where vested interests and social inertia frequently trump moral decencies, they will need vision and idealism. If they become too bogged down in all the reasons why attempts at reform will fail, they will lose hope and motivation. Role models, examples of people who stood up to what was clearly unjust and sacrificed their comfort, safety and reputation to change it, have a potent and universal application.
If such role models didn’t have a tendency to be rather larger and saintlier than the norm, less complicated and more conflicted, there would be no demand for superhero movies, or indeed the Greek myths they often reference and resemble. In recent years, there has been a tendency to challenge and deconstruct heroism, to look at the wounded psyche and the lure of the dark side that lies beneath the image, to show how easily Batman could flip into the Joker or the Doctor become the Master. Such Jekyll and Hyde narratives appeal to adults looking for subtext, but a surfeit of them can leave us wearied and without hope. Medieval people needed saints. Early twentieth-century Americans needed Superman and Spiderman. As T S Eliot famously said, “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.” That doesn’t mean that all literary endeavour should be simpliistic and didactic, portraying heroes through the uncritical lens of a child’s idealised image of a loved parent. Nevertheless, such stories have their place.
For generations of schoolchildren on both sides of the Atlantic, one such hero has been Atticus Finch, the campaigner for colour-blind justice in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Now, with the publication of Go Set A Watchman, his reputation has suffered. Though set 20 years later than the famous coming-of-age tale, Watchman was the rough, raw and sometimes messy stone that was honed, with the help of a visionary editor, into the classic that changed so many people’s lives. It was Tay Hohoff who recognised that within the first-timer manuscript submitted to Lippincott there was a childhood memoir of beauty, simplicity and power struggling to get out. And over long months she mentored the rookie novelist into finding it.
And that’s why, for all the fanfare, I react to the publication of the original, messier novel this week with some regret. For there have already been protests that Atticus Finch is portrayed as a racist, or at least utters some racist sentiments (I won’t go further, since I haven’t read the book). The truth is almost always more complicated than the fiction – all narrative is the product of a process of simplification and refinement as the branches that obscure the tree of meaning are pruned away. First drafts generally lack the clarity and focus of later ones. What we are seeing is the first draft of Atticus Finch, and there is no particular merit in exposing him as a racist, or anything else, in the way that we might “out” Jimmy Saville as a serial child abuser. Because Atticus Finch is not a real person. Lee created him – at first as a person prone to racist sentiments, as many seventy-two year old men raised in a segregationist culture are. Later, she changed her conception of him, as any novelist is entitled to do. The Atticus Finch constructed in the minds of generations of readers is real, and so is the more complicated first draft of him. This is an aspect of fictional fandom that can be difficult to accept; that a loved character can exist in multiple iterations. Perhaps the best metaphor to describe it is the multiverse theory – but, as someone who once wrote fan fiction, I would say that.
When we spend a lifetime getting to know another human being, we will constantly discover new aspects to their personality that will make us reassess the person that we thought we knew. We may find that someone who campaigned against Thatcher in the 1980s has developed a respect for Conservatism in late middle age. We may be surprised, even after decades of marriage, by their recounting of a painful childhood memory. But fictional characters don’t follow quite the same trajectory. The best ones have a tendency to become simpler. Often, they are the ones that stay with us. And there are very few writers who can do both complicated and simple, at least in the same fictional universe. Tolkien is one possible exception, but they are rare.
For those who have internalised Atticus Finch to the extent of moulding their lives and values on his, there may be a sense of betrayal. I suggest, that rather than protesting, as fans are inclined to do, that their hero has been toppled from his pedestal, almost as if Harper Lee intended to disillusion them all along, they come to terms with the fact that if their Atticus Finch has made them a better person, he is real to them, and if reading a more nuanced, maybe more realistic of an ageing Atticus undermines their love of the character and the original novel, they are free to leave “Watchman” well alone. The words of Mercury are harsh after the sounds of Apollo. And writers are often manipulated into positions where their early, less artistically coherent works, are exposed against their will. Who knows what Shakespeare would have thought about the scenes he maybe dashed off in frenzied all-nighters with minimal revision, that have survived to be hailed as works of genius today?