I don’t think we can afford heroes anymore.
I say that because the last few years have delivered a seemingly unending stream of disturbing truths about people we’ve long looked up to—almost entirely men—inside and outside the writing community. We’ve heard revelations of cruelty, abusive behavior, assault, of stomping on the humanity and well-being and voices and career prospects of others. In some ways these revelations have actually been inspiring, watching people—usually women—stand up to tell the truth about the abuse they’ve faced at the hands of more powerful men. But of course there’s no escaping the misery of the facts themselves—the real harm done.
We—even those of us who haven’t been directly harmed—also can’t avoid seeing the abuser in a new way. In this way, we’ve lost hero after hero. But the point I want to make is that these losses are painful—here I’m speaking just about the pain of people who were not directly harmed by the abusers—only because our culture has encouraged us to be reliant on others (rather than ourselves) to model humanity properly.
Which is why I think we can’t afford heroes anymore.
I only recently read the novel Go Set a Watchman, which is called a Harper Lee book, although for most of her life she never seemed to be in any great rush to release it and claim it. The announcement of the book’s forthcoming publication, not long after the death of Lee’s protective sister, was suspicious, too. So that’s one of the reasons I took so long to read Watchman: I’m not sure she really wanted it to be read. Another reason was because the book had been widely panned. But I guess I couldn’t resist forever, and now I have an idea why people dislike Watchman so much.
First of all, in some ways it’s just not a great novel. As in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s prose power operates heavily through the writing’s masterful and overwhelming charm. Have you ever thought about the fact that the trial in Mockingbird doesn’t start until a quarter of the way through the book and ends with a quarter of the book still remaining? The rest of the time we’re drawn along not by plot so much as an extremely charismatic and appealing narrative storytelling style. But in Mockingbird the charm’s there to pull you into something really significant, bigger than any of the characters individually or than the Finch family as a whole. In Watchman, on the other hand, that sense of significance never gets much bigger than the main character and her loss of faith in her father. And even that significance wavers; at crucial moments the narrator wanders off frustratingly into stories about growing up spunky in a small town. The charm, in other words, lacks a sense of purpose.
But that’s not the reason most people complain about the book. They generally complain because Atticus Finch, the hero of heroes of To Kill a Mockingbird, is revealed in Go Set a Watchman to be anything but. He belongs and has belonged to civic organizations dedicated to White supremacy, and he thinks Black people shouldn’t be allowed to secure equality and justice as quickly as they might like. Finch has rationalizations for all of it, but the rationalizations don’t work; his character reads as racist and ought to read as racist.
This seems to be the main reason why people don’t like the book: because it shows that Atticus Finch, the paragon of justice, might be just as bigoted as most of the rest of the small town he’s lived in for his whole life. This is upsetting partly because his views and actions are themselves disturbing, but I suspect it’s more upsetting because they violate our sense of Finch. That’s where it becomes a betrayal, and only because Americans—almost entirely White Americans, I would bet—had this character on a pedestal in the first place. In this way, our feelings are like (the protagonist) Scout’s childlike feelings of horror as her view of her father shatters.
The problem, though, might be more with Mockingbird than Watchman. The truth is that To Kill a Mockingbird is not exactly the book it appears to be. In theory it’s a tragedy; because of the actions of some particular White characters and a climate of White supremacy generally, Tom Robinson is convicted of a crime he could not possibly have committed, despite Atticus Finch defending him in court, and Tom ends up dead. That should be a tragedy. But in actuality the novel doesn’t operate quite like the tragedy it ought to be. In actuality the book acts as a kind of reassurance for White readers. As I said above, it goes on for a while after the trial, focusing mainly on the Finches, and on the uprightness and goodness of Atticus in particular. That last quarter of the book leaves us with a message: Okay—there are some bad White folks—you, the reader, are nothing like them, surely—and racism is a shame, but there are good White people like Atticus Finch, and we can admire them, and that’s good enough. And who knows? Maybe those wonderful White people will even do something about racism someday.
That’s the message that falls out of To Kill a Mockingbird. And the worst sin of Go Set a Watchman, in this light, is that it shows that message to be a lie. A lie that some of us may be desperate to believe.
For its part, Go Set a Watchman tells us that there are no heroes—or at least not the kind who will reassure us and let us go about our undisturbed, privileged lives secure in the knowledge that we’ll be ennobled and protected and maybe someday even saved by those heroes.
So maybe Watchman isn’t a great novel, but I do think we need to hear its central truth. We need to realize that a dependence on heroes obscures the world from us. It oversimplifies the people we admire, first of all. Far worse, the glowing status we bestow on certain people gives them power, including power over others, and it sometimes shields them from critical scrutiny as well, freeing and even licensing them to do whatever they want, which might (as we keep discovering) include some terrible things. Which is why we really have to stop believing in heroes.
That said, I do still believe in hero_ism_. There’s a difference. Heroes are _other_people, and propping them up absolves us of our real responsibilities. Heroism, on the other hand, is a quality we can all take on: we can pursue justice, can resist, can support others and others’ voices. And “hero” is also a problematically static idea—a person is or isn’t one—whereas heroism is a quality that we are called on to take up again and again. It’s not “Are there heroes?” or even “Are you a hero?” but “Did you behave heroically today? And are you going to behave heroically again tomorrow?” Those are the questions I think we should be asking.
I don’t know if, ethically speaking, Go Set a Watchman should have been published; I don’t know if it truly honored Lee’s wishes. But, unlike many other folks, I welcome the book’s surprising portrayal of Atticus Finch. I welcome it because the world doesn’t need false reassurance. It doesn’t need cardboard watchmen. It needs us—real people, committed to getting our own actions right.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel How to Mars (Tachyon Publications, 2021) and the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal (Orison Books, 2019). He teaches at Georgetown University. Visit him at www.davidebenbach.com. (updated 6/2021)
Ebenbach founded the AGNI blog in 2015 and edited it until 2019.