With all the fervor over Harper Lee’s latent [new] novel, Go Set a Watchman, there’s good reason to pay close attention to critical and public opinion. In fact, I’ve paid very close attention to everything about Harper Lee for as long as I remember.
A little background:
Scout 66 is, in part, an eponymous title for my work. Until I was about 9 or 10 years old, it was rare anyone called me by my first name. Everyone called me Scout. When the movie To Kill A Mockingbird came out in 1962 I wasn’t yet in grade school, and pretty frightened by the whole thing. In retrospect rightly so.
My nickname came, in part, due to the little girl in To Kill A Mockingbird , and in part, from my childhood friend not being able to say my last name correctly. I was never thrilled about being called Scout as a child. Sounded too much like a boy’s name for my taste. But as I got older, the name came with a privilege of sorts.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, racism was non-existent in every day life. The Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s and into the 1970s always caught my attention, and being so young I didn’t understand the hatred, especially where children were concerned.
My father’s side of the family is from Virginia and owned a tobacco plantation during the Civil War up to the time the southern economy was irrevocably broken. We never talked about race in our family and only one time during the turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement did it ever affect anything in our lives.
For nearly five years I’ve lived in the deep south, and have come to understand a great deal about social and cultural attitudes here. And within that time it’s as if our country has turned back history focusing not on being Americans who’ve survived the past 150 years together, but rather, on exacerbating violence and hatred. It exists under such contrived means only the most angry, evil people defend prejudice over justice. What purpose it serves I’m sure I’ll never understand.
Now Harper (Nell) Lee’s second novel has potential to set the world ablaze though in a backhanded way I can’t imagine she would ever intend, and could never plan.
Though I’ve not yet read Go Set a Watchman, from what I’ve seen and heard on several platforms, many people who idolized the character Atticus Finch feel they’ve been betrayed to the extreme their entire lives are a lie.
Quite simply there are those who feel the fictional composite that is Atticus Finch, a literary hero who stands squarely on the ground of racial equality, is also a bigoted racist.
There are two singular facts about the character that have either been forgotten; or those who feel betrayed are reacting so strongly, it’s stirring troubled emotions that can, and likely will be manipulated to reach fever pitch 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement.
In rural Macon County, 1935, Atticus was an iconoclastic attorney. His job in Mockingbird was to defend a man of color immediately presumed guilty of raping a trashy white woman. A woman so needy she made sexual advances toward a mild mannered man who was passing by her house – a social and moral taboo.
Atticus was cautiously hesitant in taking the case in defending Tom Robinson because he knew he would lose to prevailing Jim Crow laws. With nobility and grace he went against the rural townsfolk doing his job to the best of his ability. This is the first singular fact apparently overlooked or forgotten about one of America’s most heroic literary characters.
Reaching for an absolute ideal in his summation to an all white jury south of the Mason Dixon Line, Atticus said,
“…there is one way in this country which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man equal of an Einstein, and an ignorant man equal of any college president. That institution gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts are the great levelers and in our courts all men are created equal.”
As an attorney he was trying to educate the uneducated, and erase a deeply ingrained white elitist belief.
The second singular fact should be inherent, yet falls short of perfection in all families. Good parents set the best example possible for their children even under terrible, sometimes hypocritical circumstances. It’s entirely possible being an educated white man in post-Depression Alabama, the composite character, Atticus Finch, had tendencies that were a reflection of the time and his upbringing.
That didn’t mean he wanted his children to grow up with the same prejudice. In fact, he went to great lengths throughout the story to teach his children to be fair, compassionate people.
It’s possible Harper Lee romanticized the level of justice Atticus aspired to because it simply doesn’t exist. It’s supposed to exist for every person accused of a crime under the auspices of “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” She may have been saying Lady Liberty’s blindfold is intended to represent objectivity. Being color blind is subjective.
Even if Atticus had a darker side than the selfless hero we all believed him to be, Harper Lee made him very human: Bigger than life. That’s the hallmark of a great writer.
As humans we’re not perfect. We all know our character flaws and generally keep them to ourselves. If Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird it’s easy to see how a flawed man could redeem himself within the series of two works of fiction. If I understand this entire situation correctly, the irony in reversing the sequence of Harper Lee’s work is as unjust as the bigotry we must erase.
What we really need is to be reminded Atticus Finch lives in all of us.