Last week on Facebook, a friend declared she will now abandon plans to name any future son of hers Atticus. She is not alone among fans of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), including thousands of parents of young Attici who are dismayed that the legacy of a heroic character who – so it goes – stood against the tide of racism in 1930s Alabama, is now revealed as a bigot in Go Set a Watchman, published last week, 55 years after its predecessor.
Go Set a Watchman’s Atticus Finch, now aged 72, keeps a lurid pamphlet – The Black Plague – among his reading material and once attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting. He welcomes racist, pro-segregation speakers at the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council meetings. In heated conversations with his daughter Jean Louise (the adult Scout, who was the child narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird), he warns about a future in which there might be “negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters” and in which full civil rights might see white southerners politically “outnumbered”.
The anxiety about how this depiction of Atticus Finch might taint his saintly status, which was especially fostered by his filmic portrayal by Gregory Peck in 1962, is summed up by a New Yorker cartoon published last week. It shows a metallic Terminator lined up outside a book store with the caption:
I’ve been sent from the future to stop Harper Lee from complicating the legacy of a beloved fictional character.
Michigan bookseller Brilliant Books is offering “refunds and apologies” to customers who have bought Go Set a Watchman. The store has even published an opinion piece discouraging readers who are looking for a “nice summer novel” from purchasing it, and suggest the book is best suited for “academic insight”.
Though the novel has received a number of scathing reviews, it still has the potential to not only allow readers to encounter other facets of Jean Louise as an adult through her narration, but to be forced to rationalise a story in which there is no reassuring resolution to racial inequality.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch explains that “Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people”. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus loses his distinctive identity to become a member of the mob.
We might be shocked by an Atticus Finch who supports racial segregation, but the flawed Atticus might not be as fraught as his initial infallible depiction, or at least Scout’s – and most readers’– belief in it. The heroism of Atticus might never have issued from his being an exceptional man immune to the racism that permeated the American south.
To Kill a Mockingbird has always been a problematic novel with respect to race. While several generations have read Lee’s novel in high school as a way to discuss the history of racial prejudice, it does not mean that the story was not also influenced by the racist culture into which it was written.
This is not to charge Lee with racism, but to note that many people, including African-American author Toni Morrison consider Mockingbird to be a “white saviour narrative”. Such stories might be well-intentioned, but as Morrison pointed out, they sideline people of colour from playing any role in fighting for equal rights or defending themselves.
To Kill a Mockingbird presents racism from a white perspective and, like Atticus’s courtroom defence, gives little voice to and insight from its tragic victim, Tom Robinson.
Moreover, Atticus Finch never defends Tom because of his interest in civil rights or countering racial discrimination. He was assigned the case, rather than making a choice to represent Tom. He is largely motivated by the principle of equality and fairness before the law, noting that a man of “any color of the rainbow […] ought to get a square deal in the courtroom”.
In Go Set a Watchman, the focalising view of Scout Finch, a six-year-old child, is replaced by the adult perspective of Jean Louise, which necessarily brings with it a more sophisticated understanding of events and the potential for inner contradictions. After she has her illusions of her father shattered, Jean Louise is surprised to see that he still looks the same; she doesn’t know why “she expected him to be looking like Dorian Gray or somebody”.
Lee is thought to have based the character of Atticus upon her own lawyer father. Amasa Coleman Lee had comparatively liberal views on race. He defended two black men accused of murder, and had a verbal confrontation with members of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet he was also a segregationist and resisted integrated schools.
The Atticus Finch produced by the combined picture of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman is a similar figure in his progressiveness, in some respects, and susceptibility to inherited views about racial hierarchy. Lee’s father and Atticus are also not unusual in being highly respected men, with a reputation for compassion, who also subscribed to racist ideology.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells Scout’s brother Jem that there was once a Klan in Maycomb in 1920, but that it was “a political organization more than anything” and that they “couldn’t find anybody to scare”.
In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch has attended one KKK meeting, ostensibly to discover the men behind the masks. As Jean Louise’s suitor, Henry, explains, the organisation was once “respectable, like the Masons” and the Wizard of the chapter was actually the Methodist preacher.
Atticus Finch’s disturbing views on race accord with the worldviews that enabled the founding of the United States and other British colonies. One of the most quoted examples so far of Atticus’ racist turn is his claim that “The negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people”. Derivatives of recapitulation theory held that civilisations passed through stages of development much as a child develops into an adult.
In his 1904 book Adolescence, American psychologist G Stanley Hall ranked races on an evolutionary chain. He placed Christians of the Western World at the adult pinnacle and regarded the “primitive” races as “adolescent”, among which he included Hawaiians, South and North American Indians, the Irish and Africans.
Hierarchical ideas about race, and the infantilisation of non-white races, underpinned the founding of white settler colonies and justified genocide and slavery.
Racial prejudice was embedded in every element of the world in which Atticus Finch would have been raised. Go Set a Watchman notes that the picnic grounds at the historical Finch family property, the Landing, was used for “negroes [who] played basketball there” and that “the Klan met there in its halcyon days”.
The dilemma that Go Set a Watchman confronts us with is that a “good”, educated man, committed to upholding the right for all people to be equal before the law could also hold racist views that are almost universally understood as abhorrent today. And he is not alone. The men Atticus Finch sits alongside while listening to racist speakers are “[m]en of substance and character, responsible men, good men”.
Historically, we know that the hagiographic account of Atticus Finch, narrated by Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, describes a man who is very unlikely to have been produced by the society in which he lived. Yet as a character he was eminently reassuring.
The nature of Atticus Finch also relates to the questions being raised about the provenance of Go Set a Watchman. There has been enormous speculation about when the novel was actually written. The official account from publisher HarperCollins holds that the work is Lee’s long-lost first manuscript of what was to become To Kill a Mockingbird.
It is accepted that editor Tay Hohoff read Lee’s initial manuscript and worked with her to recast the original story to focus on Scout’s life as a child. Go Set a Watchman itself, however, does not read like it was written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird.
In Go Set a Watchman, the central plot point of Atticus Finch’s defence of a black man against false rape charges occupies only three paragraphs. As Jean Louise observes the racist discussion of the Citizens’ Council in the county courtroom, she fleetingly remembers Atticus’ defence of an innocent black boy, who is successfully acquitted. His past statement “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” springs into her mind to interrupt the hateful chorus of voices:
kinky woolly heads…still in the trees….greasy smelly…marry your daughters…mongrelize the race…mongrelize…mongrelize….save the South”.
While it is certainly possible that Hohoff recognised the potential that Lee’s three paragraphs held as the lynchpin for a publishable novel, Go Set a Watchman seems to rely on a reader who is already familiar with Atticus Finch.
As Adam Gopnik wrote recently for the New Yorker, “it’s difficult to credit that a first novel would so blithely assume so much familiarity with a cast of characters never before encountered.”
In particular, a reader who was not aware of To Kill a Mockingbird would be hard-pressed to share “color blind” Jean Louise’s heightened reaction to her father’s complicity with the overarching current of racism in the south in the face of organised movements for racial equality, such as the NAACP.
Go Set a Watchman has little plot movement and turns on Jean Louise’s realisation on one of her annual visits from New York that her father – and other respectable men in her hometown – have changed as race relations have deteriorated.
Atticus Finch’s brother, Dr Jack Finch, eventually tells Jean Louise that she confused her father “with God”, never seeing him “as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings”. Her struggle to accept a multi-dimensional, flawed Atticus is now mirrored in the cultural and critical reaction to the less palatable aspects of his character.
Readers are struggling to integrate Atticus Finch’s heroism in his spirited defence of a black man with his support of segregation and belief in the “backwardness” of African Americans.
Can Atticus’ beloved status endure after a novel that acknowledges that racism is often cloaked by respectability, or has Go Set a Watchman helped to topple the notion of the white saviour?
We’ll have to check on the popularity of “Atticus”, which has shot to the top of baby name lists in 2015, in a few year’s time.
Michelle Smith has previously received funding from the Australian Research Council.
Authors: The Conversation