Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Confronting the Ghost in the Atticus

I have just finished reading Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. I don't feel qualified to judge its literary meritsI don't know whether it should have been published.

That said, I found the book fascinating.

What makes it so fascinating is the portrayal of Atticus Finch--the upstanding lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird--as a director of his local Citizens Council. As W. Ralph Eubanks writes over at What It Means To Be American,:
"It is difficult to see how the Atticus of 1935 in Mockingbird would have evolved into the intolerant old man depicted more than 20 years later in Watchman." 
Joe Crespino, in his NYT editorial, offers Eubanks an historian's answer to his problem. The Atticus of Mockingbird could easily have become the Atticus we meet in Watchman. Crespino argues that in Go Set a Watchman, Lee offers us:
"a guide to the complexities of Southern politics, and to the political transition of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party — a shift that has remade American political life over the last half-century — “Watchman” is actually a more revealing source than Ms. Lee’s celebrated novel." 
But not only does Eubanks favor the Atticus of Mockingbird because he finds the transformation hard to understand, he favors the Atticus of Mockingbird because that Atticus fills the Southern need for "folk heroes and mythic figures." This iconic Atticus gave "permission" to white Southerners "to stand up against the gross inequities of Jim Crow laws."

Eubanks approvingly quotes Jon Meacham saying, “We all like to think Atticus Finch was our father or grandfather.” The historical reality--the one Crespino deals in--is that for most of us white people, our fathers or grandfathers are likely to be the Atticus Finch of Watchman and (if we are lucky) of Mockingbird.

Perhaps like Scout in Watchman, fifty years after Selma we have finally come of age and can move beyond the once helpful "folk heroes and mythic figures" and can face some hard truths. As Atticus explains to his daughter,
"Men tend to carry their honesty in pigeonholes, Jean Louise. They can be perfectly honest in some ways and fool themselves in other ways."
The timing of the publication of this novel is remarkable. As the question of the flag, the heritage of hate and the systemic racial injustice in our country once again confronts white America, perhaps Harper Lee's second novel has a timely role to play in shaping the country just as her first novel did fifty-five years ago. Perhaps it will help us understand ways we have been fooling ourselves.


  1. So many commentaries have addressed the issue of the "evolution" of Atticus. But he didn't evolve. He is two different characters in two different novels. The Atticus in Watchman should not influence how we think about the Atticus in Mockingbird. Harper Lee was told to write a different book and she did. In the second one, she paints a picture of American racism in one way (Atticus against the mob). In the first one she had painted that picture in a different way (Scout against Atticus). The subject of both novels is racism. Atticus is just a twice-used fictional tool put in the service of the writer's goal--to expose racism in small town America. In fact, it's misleading to call him "twice-used." Harper Lee should have given him (and Scout) different names when she wrote Mockingbird--to avoid confusion, should Watchman ever get discovered. I do not think she was saying in Mockingbird that this lawyer is the guy who would evolve into a racist.

    1. Jonathan,
      I am not so sure.
      Catherine Nichols, who re-read Mockingbird in light of Watchman, makes a compelling case in her article "Atticus was always a Racist" that they are the same character.