It has been a bad summer for the iconic characters of Southern literature. A couple of weeks ago, a New Hampshire man named Huckleberry Finn was accused of rape. This was surely not what his parents had in mind when they named him.
When the world learned that Atticus Finch had aged into a crotchety reactionary with KKK sympathies, we thought of the children. Not just those thousands schlepping their mauve trade summer-reading paperbacks all over the country. But those named after what we believed was literature’s best dad; Atticus was the #1 boy’s baby name in 2015. As one baby-name Web site puts it, “Atticus, with its trendy Roman feel combined with the upstanding, noble image of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, is a real winner.” As the New York Times put it, “Fans of Mockingbird have been crestfallen and disbelieving that their hero could be so changed, but perhaps no group more so than those who chose that name for their children.”
I don’t know. I take a different view. Look, it’s easy to see why parents would be dismayed after thinking they’d chosen a name that neatly sidesteps any nasty associations. Family names are fraught. There are complicated feelings, unpleasant memories, politics. Who gets to claim names, and who gets stuck with them? There are traditions and pressures and baggage, to say nothing of cultural and religious conventions.
Literary names are not so burdened—or so it seems on the face of it. Naming your child Howard Roark or Ignatius Reilly may earn him a few raised eyebrows, but that’s probably what you intended. Bella or Katniss is unlikely to change much, even if you do. (Of course, being literature, it is open to interpretation. For some, Esme evokes unwholesome fixations; to others, merely a charming character. We won’t even touch on the Kevin Smith-inflected embarrassment of being a Holden.)
But as Harper Lee has shown us, nothing is “safe.” This isn’t Scarlett or Mrs. de Winter; Harper Lee invented this character. If she—God—says he’s a complicated man of his times rather than a paragon seen through a child’s eyes, well, who are we to argue? In a way, it must take the pressure off. Atticus Finch as we knew him was a lot to live up to. Impossible to live up to, maybe. Whatever the author’s real intent in regards to publication, isn’t that a takeaway? As written now, he’s for all the world just another relative—flawed and ambivalent and human. Maybe parents can claim they were thinking of the ancient sophist. Maybe the name will just tell the world a man was born in 2015, when we finally stopped believing anything was permanent.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.