Bill Cosby, Atticus Finch, and Fact vs. Fiction

So the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird is out on the streets now, and people are starting to talk about it. I haven’t read it yet (and honestly don’t plan to, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute), but I have been able to pick up on a complaint that’s circulating about the book. (Mild spoiler ahead, though I assume it’s pretty common knowledge, and I have no idea how much it honestly has to do with the plot.)

Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, makes some pretty strong racist statements in the book.

That’s right. Atticus “Gregory Peck” Finch, the man who stood for all that was right and just in the world, “turns out to be” a racist. And people are now all aflutter with what that means for the original novel. Is it okay to still look up to Finch? Does this change everything? I read these articles and hear these discussions, and I just shake my head.

The best analogy I can think of at the moment is Bill Cosby and the piling rape accusations against him. Couple that with the statement a week ago that came out about how he admitted to buying drugs to give to women, and it doesn’t look good for Mr. Pudding Pop. That is an example where we must reevaluate our judgement of a character. Where the previous works of that person come under additional scrutiny. Does it wreck the Cosby Show or Fat Albert? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly an appropriate matter for some discussion. A man who continually portrayed himself as a pillar of the community who might be a serial rapist? What an awful story.

But all this talk about Atticus Finch being a racist? I find it more than a little silly, mainly because it ignores some basic facts about how books get made.

Granted, this assumes that Harper Lee’s creative process is similar to the other creative processes I’ve encountered as an author, but I’d be stunned if it weren’t the case.

Characters don’t spring up out of nowhere, fully formed and completely revealed to the author. When I’m writing, finding out who my characters really are is a big part of the process. Some authors do this ahead of time, before they write the novel. Some do it as they go along. But no matter how you do it, characters can still change. They evolve over time. From what I’ve read in this case, Lee started one book (Go Set a Watchman) and then went off in a new direction at the request of her editor. That new direction ended up with To Kill a Mockingbird. Now we’re being presented with a “sequel” that in reality was written first and appeared earlier in the creative process.

So which Atticus Finch should we believe? The one that initially appeared in a draft, or the one that appeared in the book we love?

Does it really matter? Let’s face it. Atticus Finch isn’t real. Not outside his book, he’s not. Treating this “new” Atticus like some big sort of key that unlocks who the “real” Atticus is just seems silly to me.

What if someone were to come out with a book written by JD Salinger that shows that Holden Caufield ended up being an ad executive in New York–that he turned into Don Draper from Madmen? Would that “ruin” the Catcher in the Rye? Why?

For me, fiction is there to give me new insights into people and ideas. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to read a book. But a book should be read on its own terms. Mockingbird is a complete whole. This wasn’t a planned trilogy or anything.

In the end, I suppose this conversation will happen no matter what. I certainly think there’s merit in looking at the creative process and studying how it changes and evolves and affects art in general.

But saying that the new book “ruins” the old book doesn’t hold any water for me. If Christopher Robin ended up being a junkie in a slum somewhere, does that invalidate Winnie the Pooh? Why would it? It might make you feel bad, but it doesn’t change the work itself.

Bill Cosby? That’s different in the same way that I can’t watch a scene with the Twin Towers in them and not be forced to remember 9/11. It’s history. I can’t watch Cosby without thinking about these allegations against him now.

But can I read Mockingbird and ignore Watchman? You betcha.

Apples and oranges, people.

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