Colin Dayan: Waiting for the New Atticus Finch


Colin Dayan has published a most perceptive piece on the debates about the character of Atticus Finch and the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman. Here is an excerpt, with a link to the full article below.

The popularity and heart-warming poignancy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” buries the very real activism and resistance of black citizens in Alabama and throughout the South right at the time that Lee wrote her story. Its publication made invisible the very people it claimed to care about.

In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago was beaten, shot and lynched by whites for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a Mississippi store. Alabama was the scene of some of the most significant struggles in the civil rights movement. In 1956 Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white man. So began the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King Jr. The same year, King’s home was fire-bombed by local segregationists. White rioters at the University of Alabama became so murderous that Autherine Juanita Lucy, its first black student, was forced to leave the campus. Ordered by the courts to be readmitted, she was then expelled by trustees. Nearly a year later, the city of Montgomery decided to comply with a Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation in buses illegal.

Surely a writer must be excused for leaving out historical events in favor of a less exacting but lyrically powerful story that harkens to the Scottsboro Boys, nine blacks falsely charged with raping two white women in Alabama. But the story of a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by a white-trash woman plays into stereotypes as powerful as they are long lasting. Though defended by Atticus and presented movingly by Harper Lee, Robinson remains a victim, a cipher caught in the cauldron of hate. That is why “To Kill a Mockingbird” is acclaimed as a classic American novel. In this country, especially in the 1960s, could a novel about black people who do not go gently into the night be called classic?

For the full piece go to

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