Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby

I’ve been fascinated by the upset caused by Harper Lee’s new rendition of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman, her followup to To Kill a Mockingbird. Evidently Atticus does not come off as quite so morally heroic, and that bothers people.

To which I want to say: Atticus Finch is a fictional character. Another novel that uses his name is just another novel, and another character named Atticus Finch has nothing to do with the first Atticus Finch. The character in To Kill a Mockingbird is his forever; it was complete when Harper Lee published the book.

I think this way because I’m a novelist. I love novels, but I know that they are illusions, carved out with careful intentionality by their authors. Novels may tell you some important truths—I believe they do—but they do not create lives. Only God does that.

My wife explains to me that people long to believe in heroes during these dispiriting times, and Atticus Finch is a hero. I take her point. How many characters in modern fiction can one see as genuinely heroic? I am having trouble thinking of a single one, besides Atticus Finch. Perhaps the upset over Atticus represents people who want heroes left alone.

Okay, I get that, but could we focus on defending heroes whom we know to be real people?

My thoughts about fictional heroes apply almost identically to the trouble with Bill Cosby. Of course, it’s upsetting that Cosby has turned out to be a wretch. (Or is that too kind a word to apply to a serial rapist?) But there are many serial rapists in the world. The particular trouble with the idea of Bill Cosby, serial rapist, is that we believed he was such a nice man. We believed, in fact, that he was our friend. Naturally we feel betrayed.

But that feeling of betrayal is based on a hopeless and willed naivete. I will contend (and here I rely on my experience as a reporter, not as a novelist) that the public figures we read about and see on TV—the athletes, movie stars, politicians, preachers and even scientists—are just as much fictional characters as Atticus Finch. Enjoy their performance, and draw inspiration from it, but resist the temptation to think you know anything about the real person behind the performance.

I’ve had a few experiences of this, with Christian celebrities who were widely believed to be wise and saintly characters, and whom I came to believe (from personal encounters) verged on the psychotic. Unless you know people personally, and know them well, you have no idea what they are like. Their public persona is an image, as carefully crafted as a character in a novel.

Bill Cosby of public life—let’s call him “Bill Cosby”—was a lovely old curmudgeon, funny and wise and delightful. “Bill Cosby” represented a projection of something that the real Bill Cosby wanted to be, and perhaps in small portions could be. But “Bill Cosby” has no more fallen than Atticus Finch. And you don’t know the real Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby wasn’t your friend. Thankfully.

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6 Responses to “Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby”

  1. karenkalinski Says:

    Thoughtful, well-balanced, interesting, as usual. BTW, I listened to your sermon on Naomi and Ruth, again some down-to-earth and thoughtful explanation, brought their characters more alive.

  2. carolynptl4life Says:

    Brilliant! It’s a pleasure to read your take on life, Tim. I come away informed and inspired.

  3. carolynptl4life Says:

    Brilliant, Tim. I love reading your take on life. I come away informed and, better yet, inspired! Thanks. Carolyn

  4. Rachel Says:

    Hey Tim,

    I haven’t been able to bring myself to buy this book because, as much as Atticus was/is a fictional character, he was also a symbol. You know this, obviously, and I won’t belabour such a clear point. That being said, I remember watching a live performance of TKaM last summer in London, where, as it was a weekday matinee show, the audience was full of English pensioners and school kids, the bulk of whom do not interact with race the way one would, say, in the US. I spent maybe a quarter of my time watching audience reactions (as one of the few black people there), and it was fascinating to see people’s minds turning as various scenes unfolded. To then flip it, as Ms Lee did, and come out to say that, actually, your hero is just as racist as anyone else, especially given the season that America finds itself in right now – this is not easy to handle. This is not *just* fiction, when 2015 America currently looks and feels like 1950s America. This is why Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book is coming in right after Go Set a Watchman on the list of bestsellers, because a narrative about a hero-turned-villain is insufficient and heartbreaking.

    Over to Bill Cosby, who in many ways was a friend. He was your lovable dad (and my dad has been told on a number of occasions that he looks like him), and his family was black excellence in the 80s, when black kids didn’t have a surfeit of that in the media; and if we accept the claim that media is aspirational and shapes our worldview, then it’s hard to say: that’s just fiction. Especially when you are not someone who’s commonly represented in mainstream media. When you are traditionally and continually underrepresented in mainstream media, nothing is just fiction. When the only African characters who make it to the big screen have AIDS or are despots/machete-wielding genocidaires, it’s hard to say: that’s just fiction. Because someone who doesn’t know better, won’t know better.

    I think the [deeply rambling] point I’m attempting to make here is that art, in whatever form, is not – or should not be – merely a mirror. That fictional heroes are still heroes, and it’s not solely naivete that’s behind one’s disappointment in the crumbling/decimation of that carefully constructed persona. In a world where we choose to keep so many divisions between us, if one’s only interaction with “other” is via media and fiction (which is true of millions across the globe) – then blows in fiction are almost as deep as those in real life. Similarly, if one’s limited representation of ‘self’ (and in that vein, how this self is treated by the aforementioned other), the same sentiment would hold true.

    Yikes. I hope something in here makes sense.

    • timstafford Says:

      Rachel, as somebody who keeps trying to write a good novel, I couldn’t agree more that fictional characters matter. I guess I’m pitching against the rampant American tendency to live life through celebrities. Real people matter a lot more. I sometimes feel that we are more influenced by media figures than we are by our family members. And that leaves us open to all kinds of manipulation and deception.

  5. David G. Says:

    Points well made – your years of working as a reporter have given you good insight to the difference between public image and private reality.

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