Monday, July 13, 2015
Harper Lee is publishing Go Set A Watchman this week, and I am worried about it. I am worried about its provenance, its timing and its quality. I am not worried that we will learn that Atticus Finch is a racist. If we read To Kill A Mockingbird closely, that will come as no surprise.
I have a tendency to talk about Atticus Finch and the events of To Kill A Mockingbird as if they are historical. TKAM is my canon, and Atticus is a hero. I’m an Alabama lawyer. I wear seersucker, even in California. I avoided seeing the Gregory Peck movie until well into my 30s because the images in my head from the novel were too sacred to interrupt with a Hollywood vision. I taught Law & Literature one summer in Montgomery, and my students joked that it should have been the Law & Atticus Finch. My second daughter’s middle name is Scout. I love me some Atticus Finch and take these matters seriously.
My love for the novel and its people and places certainly isn’t rare. It is transformative, holy writ in American letters, law and justice. Along with so many other adoring readers, the late release of Go Set A Watchman has troubled me much. I am relatively satisfied now that people and powers are not exploiting Harper Lee, although releasing the once rejected book now is bizarre and problematic. Even so, I am excited to read it, unless, as Maureen Corrigan suggests that this new-old-revised-previous Atticus is “different in kind, not just degree.”
Some, however, appear to be shocked to discover that Atticus Finch is a racist who doesn’t mind segregation all that much and just wants to treat his neighbors kindly without rocking the boat, a Southern white man alarmed at the Supreme Court’s intrusion into the equilibrium of Southern culture. We often give folks a pass on complicity by saying they are people “of their time.” Atticus is a man of his time, a thriving presence in his town, a pillar of his community. That time, town and community are all manifestations of reconstructed, impoverished, racist, segregation, and it’s not Atticus’s plan to disrupt it. His plan is to get Tom Robinson to trial alive and to try hard to make that trial fair. He does this on the strength of his own reputation, not by indicting Jim Crow.
In TKAM, Atticus is a hero lawyer, but he is not a hero for racial justice. He was a courageous, kind, benevolent, paternal white man on the top of a segregated social order, and he did nothing to change that. He’s not really offended or outraged by it. He did not challenge it among his neighbors, and his defense of Tom Robinson was not a crusade for racial reconciliation. Atticus’s heroism was in the service of the law, the rule of law, procedural fairness and access to justice. Atticus was decent and true, honest and courageous, but the causes that led him to risk his reputation and his family’s safety were his own honor as a lawyer and his devotion to the rule of law. He was no agitator, no prophet.
The New York Times’s early review susses out the new ideas of Go Set A Watchman, that Atticus Finch, decades after the Tom Robinson trial, is not a radical warrior for racial justice. Scout returns to Alabama from New York as a hard working 20-something woman to find her father and her fiancé angry about Brown v. Board of Education. Atticus resists integration and is a common white professional in Alabama in the 50s, conservative and reticent, stoic and diligent, benevolent but not interested in uprooting a social structure reliant on white supremacy and segregation.
This should not be a huge shock. When Atticus tells Jem that he shouldn’t judge a man until he has walked in his shoes, he’s talking about their white neighbors, not the black folk. When he says it’s a sin to kill a songbird, it’s a patriarchal metaphor rooted in chivalrous noblesse oblige. Atticus makes sure his white peers are not made unduly uncomfortable by his court appointed case. He wants a fair trial for Tom Robinson, but he doesn’t mean to offend anyone by it. He soft sells the town’s racism to keep the jury engaged.
Atticus guards the jailhouse from the lynch mob with astounding courage and inspiring pacifism. He guards it literally with illumination (the lamp), knowledge (the newspaper) and himself. But he was standing his ground in the defense of the American jury trial and the client to whom he owes loyalty and zealous advocacy. He was willing to put himself, unarmed and guarded only by his own ethos and honor, between the mob and his client, but it wasn’t to dismantle segregation. He and his children guarded the mob from itself, too, pulling the culture back from the brink of lawless violence to make sure the work of the court could go on.
If Atticus had tried to lead a movement against segregation and white supremacy, he very likely would have lost the trial worse than he did, and along the way, he would have lost his practice, his seat in the legislature and his standing in the community. He would have exposed his client’s family and his own to terror. It would not have served his client, even if it was the righteous cause, so even if he would have railed against racism, he made a savvy move to craft a different narrative.
In the trial, Atticus’s principal move to seek an acquittal was to pit Tom’s credibility against the Ewells. Here he tries to pit one bias against another, hoping that disdain for the white-trash, irreligious rednecks will overcome the blunt racism against a black man who works hard for his family. The jury can’t do what he asks, and he never really expected them to. He fought to give Tom a fair trial, like the best kind of public citizen lawyer, and he called on the jury to do their democratic duty under the law. He did not call out their own racism or impugn the segregated system that funneled them all into the courthouse in the first place.
Atticus knew he would get an appeal and intended to take it, but Tom was shot and killed trying to escape because he realized there were forces beyond his lawyer’s control, finally. Ewell got his justice when he tried to defend his own honor on the Finch children, but even then, the Sheriff forced Atticus to concede that to prosecute or celebrate Boo Radley would be unfair to Boo and disruptive to the balance of the town. It was the hardest pill Atticus had to swallow, admitting that the law and process might not render real justice, but he realizes it only when it affects his own.
Atticus Finch is the personification of Southern duality: hospitable, honorable, generous, honest and profoundly committed to community and family, and complicit in systemic injustice, self-destructive mythology and a strong preference for nostalgic stasis. Peace, order and stability trump the disruptions and discomfort necessary for real justice and reconciliation.
Atticus Finch is my hero, but he is not a perfect archetype. He is flawed, tragically. He is a great lawyer, a great neighbor, honest and true, the kind of person and attorney who does the work that must be done regardless of the price. The lawyer whom everyone trusts to do the work they will not do themselves. He sacrificed himself and his family for his client, for the law and for the fairness of the justice system. He called his community to its better angels. He is creative, dogged and deeply devoted to the law, demanding by his presence that his client receive a fair trial.
In all of that, he does not publicly critique segregation or the systems that oppress and divide. He doesn’t call people from their inherited ways. He knows who he is, who his neighbors are, what the system is, what the culture wrought, but his is the way of a lawyer with a client. He is not a prophet with a cause. He provides comfort and courage within the boundaries of his own world and people, making an incremental nudge towards decency, not a revolution.
Go Set A Watchman may change all this and call Atticus into disrepute. I hope it doesn’t. Atticus is already plenty nuanced, human, striving and failing. As with most mythology, the reality is much more compelling than the pleasant stories we choose to remember.