Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Why David McCullough Matters: An Essay

If history is any indication, David McCullough's most recent book, The Wright Brothers, might also be his last. Having published his first book almost a half-century ago, McCullough has averaged one every four to five years, a process that he undertakes in a small cottage behind his home on Martha's Vineyard. Each book is laboriously researched, often in the halls of the Library of Congress, and McCullough crafts each page not with a computer or army of assistants but a simple typewriter, a process that he refuses to change. And in the half-century that he has plugged away at that typewriter, he has collected a myriad of prizes and accolades, and he is one of the few writers of history whose books are instant bestsellers, despite the fact that his style--verbose, almost prose-poetic passages that dwell on the most technical of subjects, sometimes for chapters at a time--resists the trends of the day that demand writers create works of history that read more like novels, regardless of the liberties that must be taken to accomplish this. Instead, McCullough's writing drips with meticulousness, with the ink of a man who has allowed primary documents to seep into his skin and down into the dark ribbons of his machine, and his words are never suspect. We know that, when we read McCullough, we are reading history pure and true, and everything on the page--every scrap of dialogue, every insinuation and deduction--is based in fact and fact alone.

Now 82 years old, McCullough still possesses the same skills and insights that have made him America's greatest living writer of history--possibly the greatest in our lifetimes--a fact clearly demonstrated by The Wright Brothers, which is 300-plus pages and enthralling throughout. But with the knowledge that, some day soon, we may lose McCullough to the very history that he so clearly loves, we must understand just why it is that this one writer, beside so many others, is so universally revered and so sadly irreplaceable. Why is it that, when McCullough passes from our midst, we will be left with a yawning emptiness in our society and culture that cannot be filled? And, once we understand that, how can we guarantee that such an emptiness does not remain for long?

To understand the importance of David McCullough, you must first understand the research. Turn to the back of any of McCullough's books, and you will find yourself with a testament as to why its author is deserving of reverence:  a detailed list of sources, almost all of which are firsthand documents culled from the vast collections of libraries and historical societies. For The Wright Brothers, McCullough read hundreds of lengthy and often technical letters between the brothers, members of their immediate family, friends, confidants, experts, colleagues, doubters, detractors, and even strangers. He quotes long-forgotten newsletters, newspaper articles more than a century old, and meditative books long out of print. At no point does his prose depend on the weak credibility of secondhand accounts, contemporary postulations, or exultant propaganda. What's more, if the information he wishes to convey doesn't appear in any of these sources--that is to say, if a fact long thought to be true is instead discovered to be little more than a modern fabrication, an apocryphal story, an anecdote with no basis in history--he debunks it before our eyes, and with unwavering assuredness, before swiftly moving on. McCullough has neither the time nor the patience for manufactured truth, regardless of its purpose or effects, and he desires the same attitude from us. In McCullough's world, and rightfully so, there is no room for false idols on the altar of history.

All of which makes him an anomaly in today's publishing world. Almost all of the "historical nonfiction" books published in any given year approach their topics as though subjects of bestselling paperbacks or Hollywood screenplays:  emphasis is placed on the thrilling and more lurid aspects of the story, and much of what matters--the quiet, contemplative moments of maturation and revelation that are often conducted away from public view--are discarded as unimportant, difficult to research, or downright dull. Historical figures become characters who are developed in much the same fashion as fictional creations, with one-chapter backstories, exaggerated inner turmoil, and scandalous personal lives that are bestowed with the same level of importance as their actual accomplishments. What's more, authors often grant themselves authority over their subjects' inner identities by fabricating otherwise unrecorded thoughts or focusing on what their subject must have surely been feeling at a specific time and place, despite the fact there are no historical records of any kind to support these supposed facts...all of which is evidenced when, flipping to the back of these books, we find not a thorough bibliography but instead a list of secondary sources that runs for a dozen pages, at most. (Sometimes, a rare book will appear that either does not include a list of sources at all, or includes a list but without any connection to the actual information, which makes tracing the information to its original source difficult, if not impossible.) Unfortunately, these books saturate the market, and they sell well; meanwhile, authors whose books are built from the ground up, one piece of archival material at a time, are often relegated to the shelves of university libraries, their hard work seen as nothing more than a tired, heavily footnoted chore.

And yes, there are others who achieve success without devaluing primary sources or embracing the belief that historical nonfiction should be written in the fashion of novels--Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin are two of the most prominent--but like McCullough, they are not young. Goodwin is in her eighth decade, and has admitted that at best she has one more large work of history to write. Caro, on the other hand, turned 80 this year and has devoted much of the last thirty years to a five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson--a monumental achievement that will surely be his legacy when completed, but one that has distracted him from all other potential subjects. Beside them stand ideologues, propagandists, and fabricators, all of whom shall go nameless here, but who work--intentionally or unintentionally, it doesn't matter--to reduce archives of real, invaluable stories to worthless potboilers.

The questions then remains is, what must we demand of our historians and writers of history in order for McCullough's legacy to avoid the shadows? But this is not the question we must ask--there will always be those who take the highway towards fame and prosperity rather than the rough path towards truth and duty. The true question is what we must do as readers to assure that those writers who choose to dedicate years, if not decades, of their lives to a singular subject are rewarded with praise, attention and, most of all, patience. We must become as familiar with the ends of a book as we are with its beginnings, and we must set aside those that refuse to tell us--in specific detail--where every single quote, fact, and assertion originated. Publishers must demand this, as well, as the growth of the internet has allowed millions of people to become their own personal fact-checkers, and a company that does not guarantee authenticity has instead opened the door for public scrutiny and backlash.

If we are blessed to have David McCullough around for many more years--as I hope we are--then we must treasure him, not just because of his skills as a writer, but because he is one of the few who is actively keeping the process alive. In a world where gossip, scandal, and lies are often what grab our attention, McCullough's book guarantee that there is at least one figure standing ready to preserve truth.

*                    *                    *

Below is a list of the books--including many by David McCullough--that I read in 2015.
  1. At Home:  A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson)
  2. Ghost World (Daniel Clowes)
  3. Ancient Trees:  Portraits of Time (Beth Moon)
  4. After Dark (Haruki Murakami)
  5. Catherine the Great:  Portrait of a Woman (Robert K. Massie; e-book)
  6. The Fierce Urgency of Now:  Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (Julian E. Zelizer)
  7. Micro Fiction:  An Anthology of Really Short Stories (Jerome Stern, editor)
  8. Brian's Winter (Gary Paulsen)
  9. The Man Who Touched His Own Heart:  True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery (Rob Dunn)
  10. Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End (Atul Gawande)
  11. Child of God (Cormac McCarthy)
  12. Mind Over Matter:  The Epic Crossing of the Antarctic Continent (Ranulph Fiennes)
  13. Poisoned Apples:  Poems For You, My Pretty (Christine Heppermann)
  14. Newton and the Counterfeiter:  The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist (Thomas Levenson)
  15. Silver Screen Fiend:  Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film (Patton Oswalt)
  16. Prophet's Prey:  My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (Sam Brower)
  17. Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption (Bryan Stevenson)
  18. The Duck Gods Must Be Crazy:  More Stories of Waterfowling Obsession (Doug Larsen)
  19. The Natty Professor:  A Master Class on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making it Work (Tim Gunn)
  20. I Hate My Selfie:  A Collection of Essays (Shayne Dawson)
  21. Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Erik Larson)
  22. *The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronson; ebook)
  23. Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You:  A Lively Tour Through the Dark Side of the Natural World (Dan Riskin)
  24. *The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
  25. The Wright Brothers (David McCullough)
  26. Inventions That Didn't Change the World (Julie Halls)
  27. No Better Friend:  One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII (Robert Weintraub)
  28. When to Rob a Bank: ...And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants (Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner)
  29. *Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
  30. Headstrong:  52 Women Who Changed Science and the World (Rachel Swaby)
  31. Inside Hitler's Bunker:  The Last Days of the Third Reich (Joachim Fest)
  32. A Spy Among Friends:  Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Ben Macintyre; ebook)
  33. Washington's Circle:  The Creation of the President (David S. Heidler; ebook)
  34. *At Home:  A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson; ebook)
  35. The Festival of Insignificance (Milan Kundera)
  36. The Boxes (William Sleator; ebook)
  37. The Shadows (Jacqueline West; ebook)
  38. Rooftoppers (Katherine Rundell)
  39. Mornings on Horseback:  The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt (David McCullough)
  40. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews)
  41. Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee)
  42. *A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson)
  43. Vinnie Ream:  An American Sculptor (Edward S. Cooper)
  44. The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)
  45. *There Are No Shortcuts (Rafe Esquith)
  46. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library (Chris Grabenstein; ebook)
  47. The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster; ebook)
  48. Assassination Vacation (Sarah Vowell)
  49. What Pet Should I Get? (Dr. Seuss)
  50. The Island of Dr. Libris (Chris Grabenstein; ebook)
  51. The Girls of Murder City:  Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago (Douglas Perry)
  52. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers:  The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth (Paul Hoffman)
  53. *The Thing Beneath the Bed (Patrick Rothfuss; Nate Taylor, illustrator)
  54. Galileo's Middle Finger:  Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (Alice Dreger)
  55. Bird Box (Josh Malerman)
  56. The Conquerors (David McKee)
  57. The Incredible Book Eating Boy (Oliver Jeffers)
  58. Lost and Found (Oliver Jeffers)
  59. My Planet:  Finding Humor in the Oddest Places (Mary Roach)
  60. My Father's Arms Are a Boat (Stein Erik Lunde; Oyvind Toyseter, illustrator; Kari Dickson, translator)
  61. The Hueys in the New Sweater (Oliver Jeffers)
  62. Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (Christine Baldacchino; Isabelle Malenfant, illustrator)
  63. Tiny Beautiful Things:  Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayed)
  64. The Wright Brothers (David McCullough; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by McCullough)
  65. Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: the True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate (Rick Bowers)
  66. A Gentle Madness:  Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (Nicholas Basbanes)
  67. The Port Chicago 50:  Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (Steve Sheinkin)
  68. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by Stephen Fry)
  69. The Great Whale of Kansas (Richard W. Jennings)
  70. Gateway to Freedom:  The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (Eric Foner)
  71. Stories 1, 2, 3, 4 (Eugene Ionesco; illustrated by Etienne Delessert)
  72. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
  73. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami)
  74. A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)
  75. The Boy on the Porch (Sharon Creech)
  76. How to Steal a Car (Pete Hautman)
  77. The War That Forged a Nation:  Why the Civil War Still Matters (James McPherson)
  78. Wind/Pinball:  Two Novels (Haruki Murakami)
  79. Humans of New York: Stories (Brandon Stanton)
  80. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (M.T. Anderson)
  81. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (Sarah Vowell)
  82. The Rest of Us Just Live Here (Patrick Ness)
  83. Steam & Cinders: The Advent of Railroads in Wisconsin (Axel Lorenzsonn)
  84. Crenshaw (Katherine Applegate)
  85. La Pointe:  Village Outpost on Madeline Island (Hamilton Nelson Ross)
  86. Brave Companions:  Portraits in History (David McCullough)
  87. Righteous Pilgrim:  The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952 (T.H. Watkins)
  88. Carry On (Rainbow Rowell)
  89. The Thing About Jellyfish (Ali Benjamin)
  90. History of Brule's Discoveries and Explorations (Consul Willshire Butterfield)
  91. Mockingbird (Kathryn Erskine)
  92. Marked (P.C. Cast and Kristen Cast)
  93. History of the Ojibways, and their Connection with Fur Traders:  Based Upon Official and Other Records (Rev. Edward D. Neill)
  94. Truman (David McCullough; audiobook, abridged, narrated by David McCullough)
  95. The Chippewas of Lake Superior (Edmund Jefferson Danzinger, Jr.)
  96. The Shark Attacks of 1916 (Lauren Tarshis)
  97. Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (Isaac Bashevis Singer; translated by multiple authors)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Hope ("Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee)

By now, the backstory is established. Supposedly written before To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman was discovered in a safety deposit box by the author's lawyer and, with Lee's approval, published. Almost sixty years after its pages were first pulled from the grip of a typewriter, the novel's very existence defies easy classification:  it's a prequel in some respects, as it was written first, though it takes place 20 years after the events in Mockingbird, thereby making it a quasi-sequel. It also shares enough with its successor that we might reasonably call it a first draft. After all, the stories of the Cunningham family's garbled name, the settlement of Maycomb County, Miss Maudie's penchant for baking small cakes for the children, all reappear in these new pages like vibrant, porch-side hits of nostalgia, and without warning the scenes--whether drawn from old ink, borne from our imagination, or lifted from the transcendent film adaptation--play before our eyes unwillingly but not unwelcomely. To read this book seems, at first, like recalling friends you'd always kept in the back of your mind but never made a point of remembering fully.

But the world of Go Set a Watchman is a few degrees different than the one of To Kill a Mockingbird. For starters, Scout is now Jean Louise--a woman in her twenties who has returned to Maycomb for two weeks; she graduated from a Georgia women's college at her father's insistence and now lives in New York City, though she toys with the idea of coming home for good. Dill fought in the war in Europe and stayed--always the wanderer, according to Jean Louise. Jem is dead, having collapsed from the same heart condition that claimed his mother so many years ago, and his sister now remembers him with the same mixture of fondness, admiration, and irritation that punctuated their relationship when they were children and recreating elaborate adventures on the front lawn. Calpurnia fled the Finch family and grew old, and when Scout visits her, their relationship has hardened. Beyond them, most of the characters from Mockingbird go unmentioned, with few exceptions:  Uncle Jack, Aunt Alexandra, Mr. Underwood, and Atticus. And it is the last of these characters--Atticus Finch, the undeniable hero of Lee's original--who has caused readers the most consternation over Go Set a Watchman. He is 72 years old now, retired from the state legislature, and racked with a host of medical problems--near blindness, rheumatoid arthritis, and the fragility that comes with age.

He also espouses many of the racist attitudes of the day, which Jean Louise discovers when she finds a pamphlet tucked among his bookshelves--a publication she promptly drops into the trash, to her aunt's abject horror. She then follows Atticus and her fiancee, Henry Clinton, to a meeting of the Maycomb Citizens' Council, where Maycomb's finest men listen to speeches about the grave "nigger" threat that is threatening their country. The realization that her father--"the one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted"--is as weak-willed and small-minded as the "white trash" that populates Maycomb makes Jean Louise physically ill. For much of the book, she struggles to understand how the man who raised her, a man who never once acted superior than anyone else and taught her to do the same, could have also held such repugnant beliefs, and the chapters leading to the novel's close trace her journey across Maycomb--an Odysseus in search of a home that is right beneath her feet but also now thousands of miles away. When she finally confronts her father in his office, she denounces him for raising her with a false ideal of him, pushes back on his belief that black people are "backward" and lack refinement and education, and calls him a killer of souls akin to Hitler.

Reconciling ourselves with this new version of Atticus Finch is difficult, and for many reasons. For more than five decades, Atticus has stood as the pinnacle of what it means to be a strong, intelligent, morally upright individual--the prime example of a "good human being." He is a good father to his two children, a respected member of his community, and one of the few people in Maycomb to treat everyone equally, both in person and under the law. Even when facing down the most corrosive elements of the world around him, a lynch mob, it's his integrity and generosity that save not only his life but also Tom Robinson's, when the men standing before him are reminded of the good he does, regardless of their status. In other words, Atticus Finch has existed in our culture across multiple generations as the kind of person we should all aspire to be.

What's more, this depiction of Atticus--of the entire country, both within Maycomb County and beyond its borders--was written during the Eisenhower Administration but published in the age of Barack Obama without any revisions...a context that makes appreciating Lee's novel with any objectivity difficult, if not impossible. Jean Louise's confrontation with Atticus, for example, is downright pathetic by modern standards, including her comparisons to Hitler. But one wonders what the reaction would have been had it been read by audiences in the 1960s, when the passion behind Scout's words would have been seen as much more relevant and revelatory. (In Mockingbird, Scout highlights the hypocrisy between those who denounce Hitler's policies against Jews while also using them against African-Americans, though she does so with the limited understanding of a child; in Watchman, the comparisons are unburdened by adolescent nuance, as they're shouted across Atticus' small office with all of the straightforwardness and intensity of someone angry at the world.) We chastise Scout for backing down so easily, for immediately regretting everything she says and does, all the while forgetting that she's doing so sixty years in the past.

Unfortunately, the time that has passed since Lee wrote Watchman has dulled its potential importance. Nowhere near as well-written as To Kill a Mockingbird, Watchman tries to understand the changing country through the mind of a twenty-something woman pulled between opposite environments--from rural Maycomb County to bustling New York City and back again. Lee does not succeed, though she doesn't exactly fail, either. Scout's arguments with those around her are not as satisfying as they should be, considering they are being waged by someone we've all come to associate as strong-willed and open-minded. The Scout who would have gladly pummeled a foe with her fists, despite her father's commands to the contrary, stands by weakly as one neighbor and family member after another presents their views to her without objection. She becomes a creature of tough, steadfast thought but pitiful inaction, and even her knock-down diatribes are batted down by Atticus and Uncle Jack as though made of smoke. And when, in the novel's penultimate chapter, Uncle Jack reappears to try and make Scout understand, Scout seems to give in almost immediately, as though the disgust she feels is no match for the desperate hunger she has for her father's affection.

However, the novel at least grants us access to Jean Louise's thoughts as they appear stream-of-consciously rather than in retrospect so many years later, which shows us a different side to our treasured tomboy. She is furious, amorous, confused, impulsive, self-conscious, brash, nostalgic, often at the same time or within the same few paragraphs. As she nears her final confrontation, her thoughts become increasingly disheveled, and when she storms out of her father's office, she is an emotional train-wreck--a surprising amount of depth that Lee's first book couldn't offer us, and much of Scout's inner turmoil holds up quite well, especially as we in this country continue to wrestle with many of the same social and political demons. The anger Scout feels seems refreshingly current, even as the rest of the book struggles to find consistency.

But again, I'm trying to understand a book through 21st-century eyes--a book that is older than my parents and was never meant to have its first publication this many years after being written.

In preparation for its release, the author herself--now approaching 90, living in a nursing home, and severely impaired--made no changes or revisions to the manuscript, meaning what we have is what Harper Lee wrote, unencumbered and unedited. Six decades have passed since the world first read about Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson--six decades that have also witnessed the supposed end of Jim Crow, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the unanimous Loving v. Virginia decision, the commercialization of black culture, the elevation of black men and women to positions of influence and power, and the election of America's first black president. Unfortunately, those six decades have also seen a rise in the numbers of black men who face incarceration, a more subtle form of segregation in schools and neighborhoods, political isolation through gerrymandering, the appropriation of black culture, a rise in the deaths of unarmed black citizens by police, and the Supreme Court's gutting of the very same Civil Rights Act. Those who look at the progress made during those six decades will surely look at Watchman as a kind of artifact or gauge--a tool to measure just how much has changed, or how much remains to be changed. Others will hold the novel up as proof of something they already believe--that Lee is a racist, that Atticus was never out for anyone other than himself, that there is little hope where race and equality are concerned. After all, if someone like Atticus Finch--a man based on Harper Lee's own father--could be corrupted by fear and the propaganda of bigots, then so could anyone. And perhaps these people are right. But perhaps there is another way of looking at Go Set a Watchman.

In reading the novel, we become Jean Louise. In denouncing her father for his racist beliefs, she is forced to become her own person, as Uncle Jack says. She must detach herself from the golden idol that is Atticus Finch and embrace a new identity, rather than remaining "Atticus Finch's daughter" for the rest of her life. Which means we must leave Atticus behind, as well. For sixty years, Atticus has stood as our standard-bearer, the ideal citizen. But that began sixty years ago--the country has indeed changed since then, and it has changed for the better. Yes, we continue to struggle as a nation with issues of racism and equality, but the issues and the severity of those issues have changed, just as the people at the heart of those issues have changed--just as Atticus has changed. And just as we become Scout, Harper Lee becomes our Atticus, speaking to us from a life of wisdom and telling us that we have to let go, too, that the idol we've treasured for so many decades is tired and from an era that has passed us by. When Uncle Jack speaks to Scout, he pleads for her to understand that her father can only be her hero for so long before she surpasses him, which she's already done. She becomes better than Atticus, only because Atticus has grown old and tired, and because he raised her well. He brought her up to stand out, speak her mind, and still be accepted by those who would otherwise look down on much the same way Atticus pushed back against the prejudices of the day while still being accepted by Maycomb. (Uncle Jack's closing plea to his niece, that she should stay in Maycomb because the town needs people like her, is perhaps the novel's single best moment.)

In Jean Louise's own words, Atticus never viewed another person as lesser than himself, regardless of their skin color. He never devalued someone, spoke negatively of them, treated them as inferior, or told his children to do the same. But when he tells Jean Louise that integration is wrong because African-Americans are uneducated, and that this will cause social chaos, he's not accepting the reality that racist policies made it this way--that black people are forced to live in a system that deprives them of the chance for a strong education, then uses the effects of that deprivation as "proof" of inferiority. Instead, he places the blame on their shoulders, believing it's part of their genetic makeup or their culture. In doing so, he alleviates white people of their responsibility, even as he stands as one of the few white people in the entire town who did right. He believes in demagoguery and fear-mongering rather than logic or common sense, hides behind arguments about state's rights and American individuality, and promotes himself as someone who believes in each legislature making their own decisions on the matter rather than changing at the whim of the Supreme Court or the NAACP. These are arguments that seem hauntingly familiar six decades later, as defenders of the Confederate flag and opponents of same-sex marriage use the very same language to defend their own tired, outdated points of view.

None of what Harper Lee offers us about Atticus Finch appeared in Mockingbird, despite Watchman having been written first and Mockingbird focusing exclusively on Atticus' heroic qualities, a reality that is downright astonishing. In fact, there came a point near the end of the novel where I began to wonder if Lee and her representatives had been lying to us about the timeline. Perhaps, I thought, Lee had written Watchman at a later date, maybe in the last two or three decades, as a response to the ways in which Atticus Finch had been so thoroughly lionized and embraced by our culture. Perhaps she was unsettled by our reliance on him as our national compass, our collective conscience, our idol, in much the same way Scout looks to Atticus as her own compass and idol. Maybe Lee felt it was time for us to see Atticus as a man with the same kinds of imperfections we all share--an idol whose metal was scuffed and scarred and dull.

Atticus Finch served a purpose beyond the page, and he did so more than any of us might realize, even now. He was a North Star when the road ahead was bumpy and unclear, or when we found ourselves having to cut our own way through the wilderness. He taught us that clear morals and strong ideas are just as powerful as a bullet in a gun:  he stood in the center of town and faced down a rabid dog, just as stood in the center of a courtroom and faced down an entire town gone mad with bigotry. He taught his daughter empathy in the best way he knew how, and in doing so he taught us the same lesson. He understood the power of the written word, even when those in the schools thought otherwise, and he knew that being a good parent often meant letting your children figure something out for themselves. He believed in hard work but also valued play; he believed in time together as a family while also the freedom and independence of childhood. He helped his neighbors, even when they spit in his face or threatened to hang him from a tree. For sixty years, he has been--was--the embodiment of good parenting, of responsible citizenship, of wholesomeness.

In all honesty, I wish the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman had stayed lost, so we could keep Atticus Finch just a little longer. And, in a way, we still can--we can keep reading Mockingbird, talking about it with our children and students, and treasuring what we'd always treasured about the book and its characters. But the time has come for us to find another Atticus Finch, someone who stands for the same values but does so in a way that allows our own children the opportunity to grow with him over time instead of simply inheriting him. Our country faces new and pressing issues, ones that would have been foreign to someone living in Depression-era Alabama, and each deserves its own literary hero. The goodbyes won't be easy, and they won't be final for a long time, which is good. Perhaps more people will come to the same conclusion, will set Watchman on their shelves and look at it from time to time, not as a sequel or first draft, but as a book all its own, connected to Mockingbird through little more than a few shared names. We'd like to do that, because we could remain young, dirt-stained children running through the grass, taking small gifts from the knotholes in trees, and waiting for our Atticus to appear around the corner so we can walk alongside him and welcome him home. Unfortunately for us, there comes a point when every child has to grow up.