Atticus Finch versus Atticus Finch

BOOKLEE1-master180I’m not at all shocked that Atticus Finch, the “saintly” father of the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, ends up a racist in its just published sequel Go Set a Watchman.

As a matter of fact, Atticus is a racist in Mockingbird as well, albeit a benign racist who won’t allow his children to use the n-word but who does nothing to change the status quo of segregation in the tiny Alabama town where the novel is set.

In fact, I dare say that it would be very difficult to find a native Southerner born around 1900 who was not in some degree a racist.*  Although I was born half-a-century later, the doctor offices of my hometown had both “white” and “colored” waiting rooms. I never heard a soul complain, yet our townspeople weren’t monsters, merely benighted.

Being a racist didn’t necessarily mean you were overtly cruel or weren’t compassionate but that you held blacks to be inherently inferior and believed that the races should be segregated.

No one better exemplified the paradox of compassionate racism than my father.

*Perhaps we could make this charge to the nation in general.  Though no Southerner, Ernest Hemingway was certainly a racist, as his letters make abundantly clear.


* * *

One Easter Sunday as we pulled up to my grandmother’s house after church, a ten-year-old black boy approached our car and asked for some money to buy a pair of shoes because he had none to wear to his brother’s funeral. My father not only gave the boy, whose name was John-L, the money but also a ride home, and when Daddy discovered the utter squalor John-L lived in and that both his mother and her lover were “drunk as skunks,” he took John-L home with us where he lived for the next two weeks. However, despite this act of compassion, which made us very unpopular with our neighbors and me the target of racial taunts, my parents didn’t allow John-L to bathe in our tub.

It’s mind-boggling but true.

* * *

An admission: I’ve never been a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, probably because I didn’t first read it as child but as a 32-year-old preparing to teach it to Reagan Era 9th graders.

It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying [To Kill a Mockingbird] don’t know they are buying a children’s book.

Flannery O’Connor

Although the novel effectively portrays the day-to-day lives of Depression-era smalltown Alabamans, the plot is episodic and the characters one-dimensional. For example, Mockingbird’s antagonist Robert E Lee “Bob” Ewell makes Simon Legree of Uncle Tom’s Cabin look like a saint in comparison. On the plus side, as Michiko Kakutani points out in her front page New York Times review of the new novel, in Mockingbird Lee masterfully manipulates Scout’s point-of-view, “managing the stereoscopic feat of capturing both the point of view of a forthright, wicked-smart girl (who is almost 6 when “Mockingbird” begins) and the retrospective wisdom of an adult.” This rendering of life through the eyes of a six-year-old no doubt influences the reader’s assessment of Atticus and somewhat masks his racism (and also explains why no one in the entire town seems to engage in sexual intercourse).

Coincidentally, yesterday Kakutani’s review shared space with a story about the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina’s State House grounds. Perhaps Shakespeare’s Marc Anthony’s observation that “The evil that men do lives after them;/The good is often interred with their bones” holds true. At least Atticus got to enjoy 55 years of being considered “wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity,” words that very well might in some ways describe Bob Ewell’s namesake, the slave owner Robert E Lee.

The situation in the South was and is more complicated than the unsubtle strokes of black and white that Lee depicted in Mockingbird; it sounds as if her “new” novel reflects a more complex world, but then again, maybe not. Perhaps in Watchman Atticus is all-ogre all the time.

I guess I’ll have to read the book to find out.


2 thoughts on “Atticus Finch versus Atticus Finch

  1. I’ve long thought that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was important far more for what it said than for its artistic merit. Glad to know I’m not the only one.

    By the way, I’m fairly certain Michiko Kakutani is a woman.

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