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WALKER: ‘Go Set a Watchman’ destroys the heroic image of Atticus Finch

“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

-- Isaiah 21:6

I lost one of my heroes within the last few days, and, at least to my mind, it was so unnecessary. It is so sad.

I got to know Atticus Finch when I saw Gregory Peck portray him in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I don’t remember whether the movie won an Academy Award for Best Picture or Peck won an Academy Award for Best Actor, or any other awards, but Peck and the movie should have. In my mind, they did.

Scout, Atticus’ daughter, and Jem, his son, became my friends. I have just learned that Jem is now dead and Scout, Jean Louise, 26-year-old trash talking, cigarette smoking, Jean Louise Finch, is not what I thought she was. I’m surprised. Oh, Jean Louise has many good qualities, but her bad ones are pretty pronounced and glaring.

After seeing the movie, and many years after, my friend, Bryant Culpepper, gave me a book written by an acquaintance of mine, Mike Papantonio, which Papantonio entitled, “In Search of Atticus Finch -- A Motivational Book for Lawyers.” I read every word of Papantonio’s book, and you should to. It would make you a better person, lawyer or not. Here are two examples from the book:

“Atticus’ answer, his secret, is that most of what he does is not self-serving. He always makes it his goal to give more than he gets in return...

“That is, as a private person -- father, family man, friend, and neighbor -- he is the same man he is in public as a lawyer, legislator, and citizen of his community. He brought the best qualities he could muster to all of his many roles.”

In September 2011, my friend, Heather Potts, gave me the book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with an inscription by Heather in the front, a part of which I will never forget: “... proud of how you’ve served ... while standing up for those who cannot quite stand for themselves...”

So, that was it -- the movie, Papantonio’s book and Harper Lee’s book with Heather’s inscription, and I was hooked. Atticus Finch, my friend, became one of my heroes. I wanted to be more like him. Sure, I fell short and didn’t ask nearly often enough, “What would Atticus do?” but at least he was there when I called with good answers -- most like the answers Jesus, Gandhi, Billy Graham, Solomon and others would give -- that is, when I was wise enough to ask.

Then it came, just a few days ago: “Go Set a Watchman” supposedly written by Lee in the 1950s and against the backdrop of rapidly changing times in Maycomb, Alabama, the county seat of Abbott County. Yes, the same place, but a later and more complex time, than that in which Atticus, Scout, Jem, Boo and others lived in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Go Set a Watchman” could have been Perry, Fort Valley, Forsyth, Hawkinsville, Sandersville, Vienna, Oglethorpe, Jeffersonville or any other Middle Georgia small county seat town in the 1950s or 1960s. Yes, these were difficult and complex times -- for all citizens, both black and white. I remember. I was here, and I remember.

But, Maycomb had Atticus Finch, and as 40 million plus readers can attest, Atticus, as a part of the establishment, a leader, a wise and good man, helped his little part of the world get through these difficult times. And, not only his small little town in this rural Alabama county, but other places all over the world that needed Atticus -- needed his goodness, inspiration, and wisdom.

In “Go Set a Watchman,” Atticus, the hero of millions, does little or nothing. He says little. He provides no leadership or guidance. He is complicit in Maycomb’s and Abbott County’s and Alabama’s problems. How can that be? Why did he change so much?

I know Atticus was older. He was tired. He had rheumatoid arthritis. He was just about the same age I am today. But Atticus could have done more. He could have made a difference. He should have brought the best qualities he could muster to help. We know he used to be “the man.”

They say that “Go Set a Watchman” sold a million copies the first day it was released. I’ll bet the majority of the readers, just like me, are saddened to know that the Atticus Finch we knew and loved is no longer living. He is dead -- probably killed by someone’s desire for more money -- something that the young Atticus Finch would never have allowed happen. Where have all of our heroes gone?

Larry Walker is a practicing attorney in Perry. He served 32 years in the Georgia General Assembly and presently serves on the University System of Georgia.

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