As a writer who has always revered the story of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, I suppose I should have been upset by the revelations that the Atticus Finch of the first draft of the story had racist views. But I could only think-that sounds about right. Because my Atticus, my grandfather, also had feet of clay when it came to prejudices about race.
As a whole character, fleshed out with warts and all, I can see Atticus in this role, But as a writer, the first thing I’d like to point out is this-it’s only a first draft. In the first draft, anything can happen. Characters are still taking shape. When Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote the stories of Cross Creek, it was at the urging of her legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins. Writers have a vision and great editors help to bring the vision to life. That’s why Harper Lee’s editor suggested she re-tell the story portraying Scout as a little girl.
It’s a first draft, so let the beloved portrayal stand. As for me, I have two Atticus’s in my head and in real life. Big Daddy was my Great-Grandfather. He was the Gregory Peck Atticus from the movie, the forward thinking progressive liberal who saw things that no-one else saw in his day. I never knew him, but the stories about Big Daddy are legend in my family. He predicted the inter-marriage of blacks and whites, and knew that the designation of humans as separate or superior by way of the color of their skin was not only morally wrong, but scientifically false. He worried that President Roosevelt had too much power and wanted to vote him out of office after he had served two terms, but my Grandmother was horrified by the notion. Big Daddy was a progressive visionary, who lived ahead of his time.
The other Atticus in my life was my Grandfather, whom we called Pa. Pa was a man who would stop at the roadside and pick up hitchhikers. If he liked that person, he’d offer them a job or a chance to get ahead. He visited the sick and elderly in nursing homes on weekends, and when his mother in law needed a home, he went and got her and brought her South to live in his home. He was a great man with a good heart. He was the Atticus of the first draft.
He truly believed that the black man was inferior and would have to “work with his hands” for several generations before becoming equal or par to the superior white race. He was, by every definition, a racist. I loved him dearly, as I loved my father, and both had a tendency to express views that were not the same as mine about the black race.
Yet my father, who was a lawyer, had many Negro defendants, and a great long view of justice as it pertained to the equality affording human rights to all. He believed in equal rights under the law for fair housing and anti-discrimination laws to protect all people. Seeing issues as a lawyer would look at them, his mind was trained to believe in justice for all. Yet he held many racist views of African-Americans. He was a bit more progressive than my grandfather, but still, he would have been a model for the first draft.
The final draft of the book gave us the Atticus we know and love. That was and still is the man we want to remember. He is the one we believe in. And, as someone pointed out the other day, there were many Atticus Finch’s in our civil rights struggle who worked for equal justice and civil rights. They were in the crowd when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, they were Freedom Riders on the bus alongside their black brothers and sisters, and they worked in courts of law and in communities across the nation to help bring about the end to discriminatory practices in housing and in education.
They are our unnamed heroes. But my hero was Big Daddy, a man who lived before his time and was a model for the character portrayed by Gregory Peck in the film. It gives me hope to think there really was an Atticus Finch who lived as a role model for the man we knew. And then there was a first draft. As a writer, we also know this to be true.
You must keep the first draft in your mind as part of the story. But the first draft is set aside and put in the drawer for a reason. It’s not the finished product. The finished version is the one we call our own. It is the work of many minds and is a collaborative effort. I know them both and will always recall there is a first draft to the story we know and love. But the vision of Atticus, and the dream he instilled in so many will never die. That is the Atticus that will stay with me till the day I die.