Atticus, uprising

One of the most unforgettable moments of To Kill a Mockingbird comes at the end of the trial, after Atticus Finch has done his noble best to gain Tom Robinson’s acquittal. Calling her up from her seat in the “colored” balcony, Rev. Sykes admonishes, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” This moment of reverence, and fleeting racial solidarity, is chillingly echoed at the conclusion of Go Set a Watchman. After a dramatic confrontation with Atticus in which the adult Jean Louise discovers the bald racist assumptions behind his true beliefs, she returns to his office at the end of the day to drive him home. Heading for the car, “[s]he stepped aside to let him pass.”

Let me say first that the novel should not have been published. Despite the claims of Harper Lee’s blessing, anyone with a loved one as frail and failing as she apparently is must be suspicious. If it had to be published, it should have been as a scholarly edition, thoughtfully annotated and contextualized. That is, if there is enough textual evidence to put such a record together. The most helpful analysis I’ve seen so far comes from a story in the New York Times focusing on Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, who died in 1974. Working closely with Lee over many revisions, Hohoff recalled that “sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country.” Hohoff’s Quaker roots, this story suggests, may have contributed to her steering Lee in a more progressive direction.

I can think of two reasons why an editor might have suggested transporting the setting back to the 1930s childhood of Jean Louise, and they’re related. First, the limpid style of Lee’s prose easily lends itself to the perspective of a child (the tomboy “Scout,” recalled in flashbacks). Second–perhaps intended, perhaps a lucky byproduct of the first decision–taking the story out of the immediacy of her 1950s context opens up a more imaginative space.

For certainly, Go Set a Watchman is flawed by the didacticism of a writer caught up in the politics of her day. In the pitched moment of the post-Brown 1950s, the novel bares uncomfortable truths. Atticus has signed on with the local Citizens Council. Justifying himself to his daughter, he turns it back to her: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” (Jean Louise, now living in New York, is more sympathetic to the Negroes but insists that the Supreme Court is running rough-shod over the Tenth Amendment.)

Hearing Atticus Finch’s unvarnished white supremacy in his own words is dispiriting enough, but watching the scales fall from Jean Louise’s eyes goes to the heart of what this text has to say to us today.

“Jean Louise, I’m only trying to tell you some plain truths. You must see things as they are, as well as they should be.”

“Then why didn’t you show me things as they are when I sat on your lap? Why didn’t you show me, why weren’t you careful when you read me history and the things that I thought meant something to you that there was a fence around everything marked ‘White Only’?”

Jean Louise’s disillusionment, which may reflect Harper Lee’s own, is a common story among southern liberals. The Mississippi journalist Willie Morris recalls returning to Yazoo City in the summer of 1955, before his senior year at the University of Texas, prepared to re-experience the beauty and comfort of home. Instead, he stumbles upon the organizational meeting of the town’s White Citizens Council, his own father in attendance.

Who are these people? I asked myself. What was I doing there? Was this the place I had grown up in and never wanted to leave?  I knew in that instant, in the middle of a mob in our school auditorium, that a mere three years in Texas had taken me irrevocably, even without my recognizing, it, from home.

The writer Elizabeth Spencer recalls a similar experience on returning to Mississippi in 1955. She came home from Italy, the manuscript of her own powerful civil rights novel in hand, only to find that Emmett Till had just been murdered in the next county over. She was distressed to see the response of her father (he “reacted to the crime the way a stone wall might if hit by a BB gun”), a man she had believed to be fair and “forward-looking” on race. She understood finally that his overarching interest was in maintaining order.

Maintaing order was Atticus Finch’s goal as well. “The law is what he lives by,” Jean Louise’s uncle tells her: Atticus would be the first to oppose the Klan’s violent ways. There’s a consistency between the Atticus of the 1950s and the one who defended Tom Robinson. A black man wrongly accused of a crime deserves a zealous defense. If he loses, it’s a damn shame. Beyond the courthouse door, the color line would remain brightly drawn.

A man with the standing of an Atticus Finch would not use the n-word or tell a racist joke (at least, not in his children’s presence). He was a gentleman. Supported by everyone in his social class, he had no interest in broadcasting his views, and no need to. Growing up in the 1960s, without even leaving home I too could come to the conclusion that my elders were more progressive than they were. (Exactly why did the “Colored” sign at the back door of the dentist’s office never come down? Oh.)

In the 21st century, the “White Only” signs have at last fallen. Our laws are race-neutral. But their enforcement is not. We’ve drawn our fences in more subtle ways.

By whatever tangled means it came to light, Go Set a Watchman comes to us now “as a gift,” writes the poet Nikkey Finney. “It’s a blueprint to decode, something that we need to be better than we are.” Elaborating, Isabel Wilkerson writes that this new Atticus

is human, and in line with emerging research into how racial bias has evolved in our society. He is a character study in the seeming contradiction that compassion and bigotry can not only reside in the same person but often do, which is what makes racial bias, as it has mutated through the generations, so hard to address.

In remarking the uneasy coexistence of compassion and bigotry in the figure of Atticus Finch, we white readers need also to find the humility to realize, like Jean Louise, that we don’t even see the racism that is plainly right before our eyes.




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