On Heroes and History

This week has been a steamroller, not only within my MFA community but also in the larger literary world.  The reactions of people reconciling Go Set a Watchman’s racist Atticus Finch with To Kill a Mockingbird’s larger than life Atticus Finch are in parallel with things happening in my own life.

For many people, the character Atticus Finch is their first real mentor when it comes to race relations and nobility of the spirit.  He is unfailing in his critical assessment, fair and balanced even in the face of incredible adversity.  He defends a black man! Accused of rape! Of a white woman! In the South! And even as he loses the case he is noble in his belief that the systems of justice are fair and balanced, even if the people within them are flawed.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus is the person most of us wish we could be, poised and composed even in the most dire of situations. But he isn’t real, not even in fiction.

As Go Set a Watchman demonstrates the real Atticus is a complex, messy man, embittered by what he sees as an undeserving advancement by blacks in the South.  He’s a Klansman and he refuses to listen to grown up Scout’s rational (if a lot narrow) views.

“This isn’t the Atticus we know and love!” some people are crying in very real distress.

But, maybe it is? 

People are fallible.  Heroes are not.  And herein lies a very real problem. When we have to reconcile that our heroes are people, real messy individuals, even our fictional heroes, the result is confusion, upheaval and doubt.  This is true for both literature and real life.  We deny and blame others for uncertainty we feel. Because if that person is not a GOOD person, can their lessons still be valid?

Well, yeah. Of course they are.

We have to separate the experience from the person.  There is a tendency to conflate achievements with the person themselves. We do this when teaching US History (George Washington was a great guy! Who owned slaves! And rejected the notion of freeing blacks after the Revolutionary War!) and we do this when discussing our heroes (Joe Paterno is a great coach! Who let a child molester into his program! And covered for him for years!).

The lessons a person teaches you are valid. The memories you have and the feelings you shared are valid. You should cherish those memories if they are good. You are not the problem.

Those experiences and those achievements do not invalidate the darkness in a person. But that is not your problem.

It is theirs.