Who was Atticus Finch really?

July 29, 2015

Megan Behrent explores the tumultuous debate that accompanied the release of Harper Lee's long-awaited second novel Go Set a Watchman.

FEW NOVELS have had as great or as lasting of an impact as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Originally published in 1960, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has sold over 40 million copies and is one of the most-taught books in the U.S.

Referred to by Oprah as "our national novel," its appeal nonetheless transcends borders as it has been translated into over 40 languages. It was deemed the most inspirational book of all time by one poll (beating out the Bible), and according to a British survey conducted last year, it's the most influential book written by a woman to have "most impacted, shaped or changed readers' lives."

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the recent publication of a much-anticipated second novel by Harper Lee--Go Set a Watchman, the unedited manuscript that preceded To Kill a Mockingbird--was greeted with much fanfare as it became the most pre-ordered book on Amazon of all time.

But before most readers had even received their book--let alone had time to read it--anticipation turned to shock, horror and a great deal of debate as headlines proclaimed the unthinkable: Atticus Finch, the white, fair-minded lawyer in Mockingbird who stands up to a racist criminal injustice system and a lynch mob to defend the unfairly accused Black Tom Robinson, is a racist.

Harper Lee
Harper Lee

The intensity of the debate sparked by this revelation says much about how engrained the figure of Atticus Finch is in the national literary imagination--and the almost surreal manner in which his character has been canonized as a saint of liberalism, upholder of the law, and symbol of all that is good and decent about this country.

In part, this is because of Gregory Peck's phenomenal depiction of him in the 1962 film that seared his character into popular memory. But it also says something about the political limitations of Mockingbird.

NARRATED BY Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, an articulate 6-year-old, To Kill a Mockingbird covers two years in Maycomb, Alabama--from 1933 to 1935. For Scout, her brother Jem and friend Dill (based on Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote), growing up means being increasingly at war with the world of the Jim Crow South.

Despite its powerful indictment of Southern racism, To Kill a Mockingbird has rightly been criticized for its paternalism: While Atticus is deified, Black characters such as Tom Robinson and Calpurnia are rarely given as much depth, complexity or agency in the novel.

Review: Books

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. HarperCollins, 2015, 288 pages, $27.99.

In particular, Tom Robinson--whose name reflects his role as one of the "songbirds" in the novel--is depicted solely as victim. Even his symbolic comparison with the mockingbird or songbird--a symbol of innocence in the novel--can be read as somewhat condescending, denying him any agency or potential for political struggle or resistance. In this sense, the title itself reflects the limits of the novel in which the struggle against racism is primarily figured as a moral one.

That the novel's primary moral crusader turns out to be a racist in Go Set a Watchman thus seems all the more jarring, though the two Atticuses are not inherently at odds.

It's worth noting that his character was never as saintly, just or anti-racist as the cries of "Not Atticus!" seem to imply. In Mockingbird, Atticus is no Clarence Darrow. As Randall Kennedy notes, citing a 1992 article by Monroe Freedman, he takes the case because it is assigned to him and he chooses not to refuse it--not because he seeks it out.

Atticus defends Tom in Mockingbird because he believes him to be innocent, not because he's a committed anti-racist. He does not speak out against segregation, nor the exclusion of African Americans from the jury. His moral code too often means "understanding" racists like the horrid Mrs. Dubose, to the point that he tells Scout that it's wrong to hate anyone--even Hitler.

That the Atticus of Go Set a Watchmen, set in the 1950s as the civil rights movement challenged the political rule of the segregationists, is a racist is shocking, but not entirely inconsistent.

In Go Set a Watchman, the protagonist is the adult Jean Louise Finch, whose return home to Maycomb from New York City is narrated in the third person. The first half of the novel chronicles the idiosyncrasies of the town as seen though the eyes of the now more worldly Jean Louise, who reminisces about the summers with Dill and Jem that would become the heart of Mockingbird.

But it's the discovery of racist literature owned by her father that provides the central conflict of the novel, laying bare the pervasiveness of racist ideology in Maycomb, and the impact of the racist Southern backlash against the incipient civil rights movement post-Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycotts.

Watchman is at its most powerful when it explores the shock and rage of the grown-up Jean Louise Finch upon discovering her father's racist ideas and his participation in the White Citizens' Councils, a network of white supremacist groups founded in the 1950s to oppose school integration and defend segregation in the South.

The trial at the heart of Mockingbird is referred to in only a few paragraphs precisely to give the reader the background necessary to understand why the adult Jean Louise is so taken aback by the vitriolic racism of the older Atticus. That it's shocking to most American readers who, like Scout, grew up with an idealized version of her father is precisely the point.

MANY OF the debates since Watchman's publication, have revolved around whether or not the Atticus of the newly published novel tarnishes the image of his younger literary self or adds to the complexity of his character. But in limiting the discussion to Atticus' racism, far more troubling aspects of the novel received less attention.

If the novel were an exploration of Atticus' contradictory consciousness or his political development, it would be a better novel. But it's not. As readers, we're left with no more resolution to this question than Scout.

Instead, we're subjected to a long rationalization of segregation by her Uncle Jack, who Kiese Laymon in The Guardian aptly calls "a white supremacist Yoda"--and a profoundly unsatisfying ending in which Jean Louise declares she "doesn't understand men" and "never will." Thus, we're left decrying Atticus the racist with no greater understanding of his character or racism in the 1950s South.

Where the novel does hint at an explanation, it is at its most disturbing. At times, the novel seems to suggest that the intense racism of Atticus and other members of the Citizens' Councils is a result of the civil rights movement--an idea that turns history on its head.

Rather than providing a vision of the oppressed rising up against the oppressor to smash the de jure segregation imposed by the Jim Crow South, the few glimpses provided of the civil rights movement point to a movement that has disturbed the peace and upset the equilibrium of the fictional Maycomb--a vision that was precisely what Mockingbird so powerfully destroyed, showing instead a community rife with inequality and racist to the core.

It's worth noting in this regard, that a crucial plot change between Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird is the outcome of the trial of Tom Robinson (who remains unnamed in Watchman).

In Mockingbird, inspired by historical cases such as that of the Scottsboro Boys and the failure to convict the murderers of Emmett Till, the court's failure to provide any semblance of justice serves as a pivotal moment in the development of the children's consciousness, as they become aware of the institutional racism upon which their world is built and the utter hypocrisy at the heart of American ideals of freedom and justice.

In Watchman, we're told that Atticus "accomplished what was never before or afterward done in Maycomb County" and won the case. In Mockingbird, despite all evidence, the jury returns a guilty verdict, unhindered by the truth. So it's not just the 1930s Atticus who was a kinder, gentler, fairer version of his 1950s self, but also the jurors of Maycomb County.

The occasional nostalgia evinced in the novel for the Maycomb of yore--a world in which as Jean Louise remembers it, "people used to trust each other for some reason"-- is all the more puzzling because it seems to be directly contradicted by the novel itself.

Indeed, in Watchman as in Mockingbird, Harper Lee is at her best when depicting the complex morality and hypocrisy of small town life in the Jim Crow South. We're introduced, for example, to the stultifying effects of sexual repression on the young Scout, who at the age of 11 mistakenly believes a forced kiss has made her pregnant. Terrified that she will be sent away to Mobile and shame her family forever, she nearly commits suicide.

As an adult, it is refreshing to see that Jean Louise continues to rebel against 1950s ideals of femininity--exposing the hypocrisy of a town that gets riled up when she goes swimming with her boyfriend, but shows no outrage at the routine dehumanization and oppression of people of color.

AS IN Mockingbird, Harper Lee has far less sensitivity and insight when portraying the Black community of Maycomb. The few Black characters in Watchman are at best one dimensional, and at times, veer toward racist stereotypes. The only thing we are told about Calpurnia's son Zeebo, for example, is that he has been divorced five times–having only married at all at his mother's insistence.

In an early scene in the novel, Jean Louise observes what her boyfriend describes as a "carload of Negroes" driving too fast because "That's the way they assert themselves these days." This foreshadows the novel's "Tom Robinson" moment when Calpurnia's grandson, a young man with great potential, has accidentally run over and killed an old white man.

Once again, Atticus takes the case--not because of his great commitment to justice, we discover, but because the best bet is for him to plead guilty. Otherwise, he might "fall into the wrong hands"--the NAACP-paid lawyers who Atticus claims "are standing around like buzzards down here waiting for things like this to happen."

In Watchman, as in Mockingbird, Calpurnia emerges as one of the most sympathetic and powerful characters, but she exists primarily in Jean Louise's memory. The adult Jean Louise's one encounter with her reveals much about the limitations of the novel's racial politics.

Rightly horrified by her father's comments about Calpurnia's grandson, Jean Louise goes to see Calpurnia--but not it turns out to apprise her of the situation and share her indignation. While she does offer to help in any way she can, Jean Louise's altruism turns to narcissism as she senses a tension in the present that seems foreign, prompting her to ask, "Did you hate us?"

That this is Jean Louise's primary concern as Calpurnia's grandson is about to be sent to jail reflects a myopia that make it impossible for her to see the reality of racism and oppression, giving new meaning to the "visual defect" she refers to earlier: that "she was born color blind."

As a New Yorker returning to her hometown in the South, Jean Louise's outsider status is at least partly to blame for her blindness. Nonetheless, it seems odd that prior to being confronted by her father's racism, Jean Louise seems almost oblivious to the historic and monumental struggles for civil rights that are occurring all around her.

In an early conversation, she tells Atticus that she hasn't "paid any attention to it, except for the bus strikes and that Mississippi business," noting that "the state's not getting a conviction in that case was our worst blunder since Pickett's Charge." It is perhaps telling that Emmett Till's name is nowhere mentioned in this oblique reference to his murder and the ensuing court case.

In Watchman, Harper Lee is much better at humanizing bigots than the victims of racism. Indeed, while the novel highlights the horrors of racism, the focus is often on the pain her father's racism causes for Jean Louise, not the actual victims of racism.

While much has been made of a tarnished Atticus, less has been said of the grown Jean Louise. For readers who fell in love with the rebel Scout of Mockingbird--who stood up to a lynch mob (albeit unknowingly); was almost killed by the racist Bob Ewell; and questioned the hypocrisy of her teacher, asking how one could "hate Hitler so bad an' then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?"--it's hard to imagine that as an adult she would have few thoughts on the civil rights movement and barely paid attention to the Citizens' Councils.

The grown-up Scout is missing most of the traits that made her voice so powerful in Mockingbird. A novel about Scout's disillusionment with a racist father would be far more powerful if there was any sense of her own commitment to civil rights, or even participation in the movement.

Instead, angered and disillusioned by her newfound awareness of Atticus' racism, Jean Louise goes to bed. By the end of the novel, she remains perturbed, yet strives to accept her racist family.

While sharing similar themes, the lesson of Watchman is ultimately a far cry from that of Mockingbird. As Michiko Kakutani notes in the New York Times:

One of the emotional through-lines in both Mockingbird and Watchman is a plea for empathy--as Atticus puts it in Mockingbird to Scout: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view." The difference is that Mockingbird suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while Watchman asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus.

SO HAS the legacy of Mockingbird been irreparably tarnished?

In part, what remains beloved about the novel is its romanticized depiction of Atticus as a lone defender of morality and justice, a character who reflects an individualist notion of change and a moral universalism and pacifism that ultimately denies the actual agency of the oppressed fighting for their own liberation.

At the same time, what made Mockingbird so powerful was that it laid bare the institutional racism that poisoned every aspect of life in communities like Maycomb. Whatever its limitations, at the time of its publication in 1960, it struck a chord precisely because it was unabashedly on the side of the civil rights movement in the struggle against the entrenched racism of the Jim Crow South. This is why author Chimamanda Adichie argues that Lee writes with "fiercely progressive ink, in which there is nothing inevitable about racism and its very foundation is open to question."

While Watchman may be disappointing, it's worth remembering that it is not a sequel. It is better understood as the first draft of what would become Mockingbird. In that sense, it gives us some insight into the motivations of Mockingbird--inspired by, it would seem, Harper Lee's attempt to come to terms with the vitriolic racism of her Southern hometown. It also makes it clear how firmly rooted the novel is in the civil rights movement.

Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee's starting point in exploring these themes--not her final word. If Atticus was transformed in the process, so, it seems, was Lee. That To Kill a Mockingbird is a far more powerful indictment of the Jim Crow South isn't just a literary question. It says perhaps as much about the development of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s as it does about Harper Lee's writing process.

Despite its limitations, To Kill a Mockingbird played an important role in exposing the racism of the Jim Crow South to a broad public audience and sparking conversations in classrooms and beyond for over five decades.

That it continues to be read in schools that, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, remain segregated, with over 53 percent of Black students in the South attending schools in which nine out of 10 students are racial minorities, and in a country in which more Black men are incarcerated today than were slaves in 1850, is a reminder of how relevant its themes are.

If nothing else, the debates following the publication of Watchman serve to remind us of a brutal legacy of racism, and its endurance--as the Confederate flag is lowered 55 years after Mockingbird's publication--while simultaneously highlighting the urgency and necessity of the new civil rights movement which has emerged under the banner of Black Lives Matter to continue the struggle for racial justice and equality.

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