“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view," the lionhearted lawyer Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout in one of the most famous lines of Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. "Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Since news first emerged of a radically new version of Atticus in Lee's follow-up novel, Go Set a Watchman, "climbing into the skin" of people named in honor of the once righteous protagonist makes for a pretty awkward experience.
Set for release on Tuesday, the new book depicts a version of Atticus Finch quite different from the principled attorney who defiantly defended a black man falsely accused of raping a white women in 1930s Alabama while espousing wise words of compassion and tolerance to his children. Set in the 1950s, Watchman sees Scout returning home to the fictional town of Maycomb to find her father now arthritic and crotchety, spewing segregationist views, and associating with the Ku Klux Klan. “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” he says. “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
Given its central place in the American literary canon, readers have been left reeling at the character's shocking new face. "The depiction of Atticus in Watchman makes for disturbing reading," New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote in her critique of the new book, "and for Mockingbird fans, it’s especially disorienting."
The new work is especially disorienting, though, for people who were so attached to Mockingbird they named their children in honor of the genteel Finch patriarch. "Atticus Finch is the most noble person in American literature. I remember thinking if I have a son someday, I'm going to name him that," Clarence "Bud" Grebey, 56, of Stamford, Connecticut, told BuzzFeed News on Monday.
"His commitment to helping others as an attorney, his lovingness as a dad. Who wouldn't want that man as a father?" Bud said. "In the first book, at least."
Although Grebey ultimately felt Atticus was too unusual for his son James Atticus Grebey to have as a first name when he was born 24 years ago, the name has surged in popularity in recent years. In 2014, 846 baby boys born in the U.S. were named Atticus, according to the Social Security Administration, which was a new record for the name. Stars like Casey Affleck and Jennifer Love Hewitt have sons named Atticus, and it's currently the 370th most popular name for newborn boys in America.
"My mom was hoping for a girl so she could name me Scout, but she got me instead," Atticus Kelbley, 31, told BuzzFeed News. The Philadelphia resident said he used a variation of his middle name during his school years to avoid being bullied for what was once an unusual name, but by age 18 was happy to go by Atticus.
"Seventy percent of the time I meet someone new, the first topic of conversation is To Kill a Mockingbird," he said, adding that his mother had told him she was unlikely to read the new book for fear of spoiling the image of her beloved Atticus Finch.
The stunning revelations about the character have been complicated by the circumstances in which Watchman was originally written, rediscovered, and now released for publication. Despite being set two decades after Mockingbird, Lee in fact wrote Watchman first in 1957. After the book was rejected for publication, she worked for two years with an editor on reimagining the story, which eventually became Mockingbird.
There's also been concerned speculation from readers that Lee, who famously shunned media attention and refused to publish additional works after her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel was released in 1960, may not have had the mental capacity to fully consent to the new work's release — although publisher HarperCollins has vehemently denied this, issuing a statement from the author that she is "happy as hell" with Watchman's release.
James Atticus Grebey, who said he once considered "reinventing" himself before starting college by using Atticus as his first name, told BuzzFeed News that Watchman, which he viewed as a "never-intended-for-publication rough draft," had "complicated the Mockingbird canon." Grebey, a former BuzzFeed editorial fellow, said that now when his middle name comes up people will need to chose which version of Atticus Finch they think of.
"That's annoying to have to deal with," he said, "but it's better than the unthinkable alternative: that Atticus Finch changed in a horrible, unpredictable way that sometimes happens in real life, but doesn't need to happen in fiction."
"For me, the real Atticus, the one I'm named after, is, and will always be, a paragon of virtue and not a bitter racist," he said.
Atticus has also been a popular name in the commercial world, signifying trustworthiness and integrity. Two Blink-182 members, for example, started a rock-themed clothing brand named Atticus that features a finch logo.
For business owners like Lucy Valena of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the development is causing a headache. For six years, her café, Voltage Coffee and Art, has sold a popular burnt-sugar vanilla latte affectionately called "the Atticus Finch" because of its "old-fashioned and righteous taste." Valena, 30, said she's going to read Watchman before she considers changing the drink's name.
"When we read a novel we think of the characters being preserved forever because the novel begins and ends and we have this little world that's sort of untouchable," she told BuzzFeed News.
"That then decades later a new novel can come out in very strange, problematic ways and kind of flip the entire concept... It's a kind of amazing postmodern thing that's happening," she said.
Spare a thought, too, for bibliophile cat owners who have a keen appreciation for a good pun. Talia Betourney, of Morgantown, West Virginia, purchased a 12-week-old American shorthair kitten just two weeks ago and fulfilled an ambition she had held since high school by naming her new pet Catticus Finch. The 19-year-old, who said she intends to study law because of her admiration for Lee's protagonist, has been left heartbroken by the new character development.
"It’s so unfortunate," she said of the revelations emerging so soon after she named her new kitten. "All my English-major friends are making fun of me relentlessly."
Talia Betourney and Catticus Finch.
Admitting he now had mixed feelings about the character who inspired his son's middle name, Bud Grebey said he was somewhat philosophical about the news. "This character belonged to Harper Lee. It's her character," he said. "I think the whole world wants the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird to be theirs because of what he represents to them. But at the end of the day it's her prerogative to change her character."
Seventeen-year-old Atticus Altuna, of Tucson, Arizona, told BuzzFeed News his mom had been a huge fan of the 1962 film adaptation, idolizing Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning turn as Atticus Finch.
"I read the book when I was in middle school and saw the movie," he said. "I thought it was pretty awesome. I liked his determination and whatnot, his moral fiber."
The teenager admitted, however, that he hadn't yet heard anything about the new book.
To Kill A Mockingbird is set in Maycomb, Alabama. An earlier version incorrectly named the story's setting.
David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.
Contact David Mack at email@example.com.
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