“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.”.
I chose not to read To Kill a Mockingbird during the Pulitzer Project. It was mandatory reading in middle school and high school, I’ve seen the movie a couple times, and the enshrining of Atticus Finch as the stalwart, fair, preacher of equality has been so established in the public consciousness that I didn’t see the need for me to go back and re-read it. Moreover, there are nearly 90 books that have won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—I didn’t want to go back and re-read it. Now, having read the sequel Go Set a Watchman (which I did with great trepidation—more on that below), and having been reminded of some of the details of To Kill Mockingbird that are easy to overlook, I’m thinking that I should read it Mockingbird a third time; and read it much more closely.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding the release of Go Set a Watchman. It was released in 2015—55 years after Mockingbird was released—and not only was it received poorly, it seemingly upended everything in Lee’s established universe. There was plenty of controversy in the book’s background, too, involving lawyers and literary agents and money-grabbing and handshake deals. It was certainly curious why Lee, after 55 years of adamantly stating that she’d never release another book, would have this one published. From Wikipedia:
The publication of the novel (announced by her lawyer) raised concerns over why Lee, who for 55 years had maintained that she would never write another book, would suddenly choose to publish again. In February 2015, the State of Alabama, through its Human Resources Department, launched an investigation into whether Lee was competent enough to consent to the publishing of Go Set a Watchman. The investigation found that the claims of coercion and elder abuse were unfounded, and, according to Lee’s lawyer, Lee was “happy as hell” with the publication.
This characterization, however, was contested by many of Lee’s friends. Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, a friend and former neighbor, painted a very different picture. In her piece for The Washington Post, “The Harper Lee I knew”, she quoted Alice—Lee’s sister, whom she described as “gatekeeper, advisor, protector” for most of Lee’s adult life—as saying, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” She made note that Watchman was announced just two and a half months after Alice’s death and that all correspondence to and from Lee went through her new attorney. She described Lee as “in a wheelchair in an assisted living center, nearly deaf and blind, with a uniformed guard posted at the door” and her visitors “restricted to those on an approved list.”
So readers were presented with a moral quandary—was it okay to buy it? Was it okay to read it? It was a dilemma I struggled with, too, for a little while. I decided that it was important to read it, but it was also important not to buy it new; so I bought a used copy from a local bookstore for a couple dollars. I wanted to celebrate a piece of literary history and honor Harper Lee’s legacy, but I didn’t want to support the publisher, the agents, and the lawyers who (more than likely) took advantage of an old woman who was not in her right mind.
The reason I felt okay with reading the book was its history. When I first heard about it, I assumed Go Set a Watchman was the sequel to Mockingbird—just in manuscript form. In reality, Watchman was turned into the publisher before Mockingbird, but had been rejected by them. Go Set A Watchman follows the same characters as To Kill A Mockingbird and is set 20 years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird; but of the two novels, it was written first. On one view, this would position To Kill A Mockingbird as the prequel to an until-now unpublished book. Others would argue that it is in fact a total revision of Go Set A Watchman, and instead of existing side by side, the text published in 1960 replaces the first draft written in the 1950s.
So are the two books two installments in the same series about one set of characters in one fictional place? Or are they two drafts of the same novel, which present us with competing versions of the same characters?
Unless you’ve been living with your head buried in the sand, I’m sure you know by now that just about everybody who read Go Set a Watchman was horrified by the much-beloved, standard bearer of racial equality, monument to Southern gentlemanhood, model of patriarchy, and all-around great guy, Atticus Finch. His portrayal was variously described as a “bombshell,” “shocking” and a “revelation” in early reviews.
I was horrified, too.
Over the span of the twenty years between the two stories, Atticus Finch had gone from a decent, just, upright lawyer who preached the tenets of acceptance and equality to an old curmudgeon who railed against desegregation, attended KKK rallies, and denounced the NAACP. Which begs the question…
WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO ATTICUS FINCH?
Atticus Finch has been propped up on a pedestal as a role model since Mockingbird‘s release. Law students aspire to be him, people name their kids in honor of him… How is that a lawful good role model like Atticus Finch could turn into such a bigot?
The more I research this topic, the more I find that scholars who have written on race and the legal system in To Kill A Mockingbird are less surprised. “If you read the book from a racial justice perspective,” Katie Rose Guest Pryal, a novelist and former law professor, commented, “it wouldn’t surprise you that this is who Atticus is.”
Pryal’s 2010 paper “Walking in Another’s Skin: Failure of Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird ” argues that Atticus never lives up to his own advice that to understand somebody, you have to “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” She points out that Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson, a black character accused of raping a white woman (Mayella Ewell), is not about understanding Tom Robinson: “Neither the jury nor the audience of the novel have learned anything about Tom: where he lives, what his family is like, how he treats his wife and children and others in his daily life.” His defense of Tom relies instead on convincing them that he, Atticus, is honorable. By playing to white prejudices in a system that consistently benefits whites, his strategy does nothing to “disturb America’s racial caste system.”
Further, it’s been argued that Atticus Finch is a classist; possibly a sexist, too. Mayella Ewell was poor, and came from a poor family. Of her and her family, Harper Lee writes, “no truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.” Malcolm Gladwell is blunt about Lee’s portrayal in his New Yorker article: “the Ewells are trash.” And Atticus uses this in Robinson’s defense.
Here is the crucial moment of Robinson’s testimony. Under Finch’s patient prodding, he has described how he was walking by the Ewell property when Mayella asked him to come inside, to help her dismantle a piece of furniture. The house, usually crowded with Mayella’s numerous sisters and brothers, was empty. “I say where the chillun?” Robinson testifies, “an’ she says—she was laughin’, sort of—she says they all gone to town to get ice creams. She says, ‘Took me a slap year to save seb’m nickels, but I done it. They all gone to town.’ ” She then asked him to stand on a chair and get a box down from the chifforobe. She “hugged him” around the waist. Robinson goes on:
“She reached up an’ kissed me ’side of th’ face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count. She says, ‘Kiss me back nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an’ tried to run but she got her back to the door an’ I’da had to push her. I didn’t wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an’ I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th’ window.”
“What did he say?”
. . . Tom Robinson shut his eyes tight. “He says you goddam whore, I’ll kill ya.”
Mayella plotted for a year, saving her pennies so she could clear the house of her siblings. Then she lay in wait for Robinson, in the fervent hope that he would come by that morning. “She knew full well the enormity of her offense,” Finch tells the jury, in his summation, “but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it.” For a woman to be portrayed as a sexual aggressor in the Jim Crow South was a devastating charge. [Steven] Lubet writes:
The “she wanted it” defense in this case was particularly harsh. Here is what it said about Mayella: She was so starved for sex that she spent an entire year scheming for a way to make it happen. She was desperate for a man, any man. She repeatedly grabbed at Tom and wouldn’t let him go, barring the door when he respectfully tried to disentangle himself. And in case Mayella had any dignity left after all that, it had to be insinuated that she had sex with her father.
And, Gladwell alleges, he “does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages [the jury] to swap one of their prejudices for another.” He tries to defend Robinson by making Mayella Ewell sound suspect — because she is sexually aggressive, and because she comes from an incestuous family of “trash.”
Atticus Finch is not a hero of equality; he’s no standard bearer for empathy; he’s no white savior. He’s just a good lawyer who knows his audience. Remember, Atticus Finch did not volunteer to take Tom Robinson’s case—the state assigned him to it as a public defender. And he defends Tom Robinson, sure (though unsuccessfully); he does a hell of a job of it, too! He makes valid arguments and does everything he can to plant seeds of reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind (lack of medical evidence, for example).
But he doesn’t do anything to gain the jury’s empathy for Tom. He doesn’t make any arguments that defend Tom’s character as a husband, as a father, as God-fearing Christian, as a human being… No. He shifts the blame. He addresses an all-male, all-white jury—men just like him—and tells them, “Don’t be racist—be sexist and classist instead.” He puts Tom Robinson on the stand and gets him to detail all of the ways in which Mayella Ewell entrapped him. Finch is giving the jury a choice—you can act as white people and enforce the power of your race against Tom Robinson, or you can act as men and enforce the power of your gender against Mayella Ewell. That might be a good argument in a courtroom setting, but it’s not especially noble.
So, why are we surprised that in the twenty years that passed between Mockingbird (set in 1935) and Watchman (set in the 1950s) that Atticus Finch is an unabashed bigot?
I think the answer is we’ve been told to believe, for so long, that he’s a hero when in fact he’s been a bigot all along. In the book he’s portrayed as a white savior; in the movie he’s played by the charming, handsome Gregory Peck (who also won an Oscar for the role); progressive-leaning literary critics of the day praised Atticus Finch’s role in the Civil Rights movement… White patriarchy established Atticus Finch as a white savior, and white pop culture cemented his legacy.
Knowing what we know now—that Go Set a Watchman was the original manuscript Harper Lee submitted to the publisher (before Mockingbird)—emphasizes that Lee’s publisher wasn’t ready in the 1950s for a novel that showed a daughter’s conflicted relationship with a father she recognizes as a bigot. Charles J. Shields, the author of Lee’s biography, Mockingbird, sees an image from the first chapter of Go Set A Watchman as an eloquent comment on the reception of the novel in the ’50s. “I think it’s a great metaphor that the train overshoots the station,” he says, referring to Scout’s arrival in Maycomb County, “almost as though the train itself was reluctant to stop.”
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.