Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Atticus Finch and Superman: Who Owns Them?

Judging a book by its coverage, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, portrays Atticus Finch in a different way.  I hear that the novel concerns grown-up Jean Louise Finch finding herself disillusioned upon a return trip home.  Should we now dig under the surface of Mockingbird for the "real" -- racist, mean-spirited -- Atticus Finch?


Some characters, icons of the culture, take on a life of their own.   They exist in a Platonic sense, as ideals that we all more - or - less share.  The creators of a new Superman movie or comic book can explore the character, give a new angle on him, trim him down or buff him up, but cannot touch the essence of him without exciting the same kind of passion I've heard about Watchman.  A priest I know got into it with me over Man of Steel because Superman at the end [SPOILER ALERT] kills his nemesis.  The priest said, that's not how the real Superman does it.

But, of course, Superman was once just the idea of a couple of Jewish teens in New York, and he was a wise-cracking brute who didn't fly, but "leaped over buildings in a single bound."  That character developed through decades of work by new artists and writers in comics, directors and actors in media.  At age 11, when Mom and Dad gave me a hardback anthology of Superman comics, I found historical interest in those original stories, but I saw them as a kind of primitive first approach to the character I'd grown to love in the 1960s.

So let it be with the Atticus presented in this newly published work.  Let him be a sign of Harper Lee's development.  As my friend Susan Rouse pointed out, every twenty-something who goes away to college returns home to find a whiff of something rotten to disdain.   Mockingbird is the work of a more mature woman.  Let this earlier version of Atticus show us how racial prejudice has long been a part of the fabric of American culture, underlying thoughts and deeds of people who were (are?) otherwise fair-minded.   Let us be thankful that Harper Lee, maturing under an editor's mentorship, stripped away the parts that weren't the "real" Atticus.

And let us be confident that generations of trial and error, argument and adulation, prequels and sequels, additions and revisions, will only deepen our appreciation of the real Superman and the real Atticus.

[I developed these ideas in earlier articles:  "Superman Returns": Myth or Merchandise? and So, How Did You Like "Man of Steel?  I reflect on To Kill a Mockingbird as the World's Last English Teacher to Read TKM.]


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