By Daniel van Voorhis –
The verdict was in before the book was out. America’s hero, perhaps the purest and most virtuous character in modern literature (and film), Gregory Peck Atticus Finch was a racist.
The day Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee was released I read it (straight through the night). I went back through To Kill A Mockingbird and watched the movie. A cultivated man or woman does not let the media solely form opinions for them, but is rather well read and able to calmly discuss controversial news, literature, and other forms of art. The Man About Town would expect this of you fine readers.
In our unconditioned society (that is, not beholden to any conditions pertaining to belief, style, decorum, etc…) being labeled a racist is probably on a short list with pedophile, puppy assassin, and cigarette smoker as the only things completely unacceptable.
Harper Lee’s newest (but older) sequel (but written before) to To Kill A Mockingbird was released this past Tuesday (July 14th) to immediate controversy. In this book (which was likely written as her first novel, but was completely overhauled to become To Kill A Mockingbird) 26 year old Jean Louis Finch (aka Scout) returns to Maycomb, Alabama from New York to realize that the idealized world of her childhood was not as she saw it as a 9 year old.
To Kill A Mockingbird has been a staple of high school reading lists, book clubs, and serious conversation at Universities since its publication in 1960. It is rightly considered an American classic. It is told through the eyes of the pugnacious young Scout (the daughter of local attorney) with humor, drama, and a number of climactic scenes with surprising plot twists. I won’t extol it any further – if you haven’t read it – read it now. Spend 3 days worth of time that you would be browsing Facebook, trolling message boards, watching procedural crime dramas, etc… and read the book. It is a fantastic piece of literature as well as a window into the personal crises and tragedy of the 1960’s civil rights movement in the segregated south.
Most of us know it from the movie released two years after the book was published. The movie stars Gregory Peck as the “pure as the driven snow”, the white knight advocate of all that is right and just in the world. Peck won an academy award and The American Film Institute has named Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch as the #1 Hero in the history of American film. They are all well deserved accolades.
Except, it serves us well to realize that in the book he is more complex. He doesn’t willingly take on the controversial case to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, nor does he take any strong anti-segregationist stand. But, in the 1960’s (to the present), polite and middle class America has found in Finch a white man standing up to institutionalized racism. It is easier to preserve our image of a white man as the hero in the Civil Rights Movement than a complex character. Insofar as he is seen as a man upholding the law, defending the innocent, and modeling composure and justice to his young children, he is an American hero.
However, we have to remember that To Kill A Mockingbird and the image of Atticus was brought to us through the eyes of her doting young daughter. We see Atticus through the eyes of his daughter: pure as the driven snow and as an advocate of all that is good in the world. There is little nuance because we do not expect that from a loving, and very young daughter. The film, unfortunately, does not clearly portray Atticus as through Scout’s eyes. And thus, those of us who have the habit of conflating book and movie have had a slightly skewed version of Atticus since we first met him on the screen.
In Go Set A Watchman, we also see Atticus and the small town of Maycomb, Alabama through the eyes of Scout. Except she now goes by her given name, Jean Louis, and is a 26 year old New Yorker coming home to visit her father and many of those we met in To Kill A Mockingbird. (As this was the first book written, we are introduced to these characters through a number of flashbacks.)
Just as Harper Lee was born in a small Alabama Town in the 1930’s and then went on to move with the literati and jet set (including Truman Capote) in the more progressive North East, she would have found the depression era south as less than idyllic as she grew older. And, this too is what Jean Louise finds.
But what about Harper Lee ruining one of the last heroes we had by allowing her original book to be released!? If Atticus Finch has a few views on race that we find (righty so) morally repugnant, who among us has any hope of being paragons of racially pure motives and free from the structural and institutional racial issues still present in America today?
The humanization of Atticus is not a blow to the story many of us have learned to love. It is a blow to our reading of it as if it was not an idealized view of a good father by a loving daughter.
Is Atticus a racist? If we label people primarily (and sometimes only) by some view they express, maybe. He holds commonly held views about race amongst the white upper middle class in the 50’s. And the beauty of this book is that we are now given the opportunity to see this man through the eyes of a grown daughter, who still loves her father but has to struggle with his imperfections. She gets angry. He digs his heels in. The drama is not a courtroom but a relationship between father and daughter.
The final pages represent some of the most remarkable (albeit flawed) and loving (although sometimes begrudging) images of forgiveness and unconditional love of any book I have read in recent memory.
I won’t give away any major points of the story. I will recommend it highly. I will ask you to cut out some of the media noise over the book (on both sides of the political spectrum) and read the book for yourself. In it you will find a story of a father and daughter dealing with a clash of ideologies and the struggle to love one another in spite of them. In our age of struggling with clashing ideologies, and with those on display on the internet and in the media it seems many of the critics missed the point, so badly needed today, of the novel entirely.
All The Best,
The Man About Town
Written while listening to the Brodsky Quartet- The New World Quartets of Dvorak (2014)