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The Troubling Legacy Of Atticus Finch

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The Troubling Legacy Of Atticus Finch


So the beloved Atticus Finch was actually a racist? The saintly small-town attorney of To Kill a Mockingbird was really a member of a local White Citizens’ Council, that network of retrograde organizations dedicated to white supremacy?

The publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has produced waves of anguish and despair among her fans, who fell in love with her coming-of-age tale featuring a courageous lawyer who bucked the townsfolk and endured threats to represent a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Generations have adored Atticus.

That man is hardly present in Watchman, which is apparently an early draft of the novel that eventually became Mockingbird. The two books are quite different, with a stunningly bigoted Atticus as the biggest surprise.

So what are we to make of Atticus now?

Pardon me for being literal here, but it’s probably helpful to remember that Atticus is a fictional character, a creation of Lee’s fertile imagination. Both versions of Atticus are.

As a native of Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, Alabama, I grew up immersed in tales of the people, places, and events that may have inspired her. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was, indeed, a local attorney. But there is no record of his taking on a black defendant in a case that incited the anger of local white residents, as did the charge of rape leveled against Tom Robinson, the black defendant in Mockingbird. (Amasa Lee’s politics are lost in the footnotes of history, though there is little reason to believe he stood apart from his time and place.)

Instead, Mockingbird and Watchman are both explorations of Harper Lee’s views of the racism that enshrouded — indeed, straitjacketed — the South. Lee — “Miss Nelle,” to locals — was not a creature of her time and place.

Tomboyish as a child, she was known as brilliant, bookish, acerbic, and headstrong. And she clearly saw something wrong with the social structure dictated by Jim Crow. (I’ve had the pleasure of a few conversations with her, and it’s clear she’d never have fit in with the expectations for patrician white women of her day.) She explored, protested and illuminated that social structure in her fiction.

The just-published Go Set a Watchman takes place after Jean Louise Finch, a character who bears some resemblance to the author, is a young adult living in New York City. During a summer visit to her native Maycomb, she learns that her father, whom she believed a paragon of integrity, holds abhorrent views on race. So does her suitor, her father’s law partner.

A bit disjointed and lacking the lyricism of Lee’s later effort, the book deals with Finch’s efforts to come to terms with their bigotry. It rarely soars, but it does have its moments of insight and wisdom.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by contrast, is set in Finch’s childhood and makes her its masterful narrator. The novel is well written, sagacious and, with a noble Atticus, redemptive.

But it has drawn its critics over the years — reviewers who note the limitations of even that version of Atticus Finch. He was hardly a revolutionary who wanted to tear down Jim Crow, they say.

That’s true. If you read Mockingbird closely, you’ll see Atticus’ paternalism. He represented a patrician class that believed in a sense of fair play, especially before the bar of justice. But he was hardly advocating full equality for his black hirelings and acquaintances.

Still, I admire that Atticus. I accept him, despite his flaws, as an example of quiet heroism. He may not have broken ranks with Jim Crow, but his simple decency stood apart.

Young readers — and older readers, too, I believe — will continue to be drawn to the example of a fictional hero willing to sacrifice popularity in pursuit of a righteous cause. That’s a harder thing than most of us care to admit. So I believe the Atticus of Mockingbird will always endure, even if he’s temporarily overshadowed by a less virtuous one.

(Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

Image: Screengrab from To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) via Wikicommons

Cynthia Tucker Haynes

Cynthia Tucker Haynes, a veteran newspaper journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, is a Visiting Professor of Journalism and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Georgia. She is also a highly-regarded commentator on TV and radio news shows.

Haynes was editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper for 17 years, where she led the development of opinion policy. More recently, she was that newspaper’s Washington-based political columnist. She maintains a syndicated column through Universal Press Syndicate, which is published in dozens of newspapers around the country. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007, Haynes has also received numerous other awards, including Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists.

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  1. idamag July 18, 2015

    It is disappointing that Harper Lee chose to besmirch one of the greatest fictional heroes in history.

    1. MichelleRose3 July 18, 2015

      What a silly comment. “Besmirch?” He’s fictional! He’s her own creation. He has no real existence and one cannot “besmirch” a fictional character, any more than one can “besmirch” a cartoon character. “Charlie Brown is a self-pitying loser with a feeble grasp on reality. Plus he’s pretty damned ugly, too.” Does that “besmirch” Charlie Brown? Hardly.

      Are you so disconnected from reality that you can only think of Atticus Finch as real? You need to get out more. Turn off the tube and put down the book. There is a real world out there, with real people and THOSE people are the ones that matter, not a character in a book. Good lord, no wonder this country is in trouble. Its citizens cannot tell reality from fiction.

      1. charleo1 July 19, 2015

        Geez! You’re pretty rude, whoever you are. No, one may not be capable of actually, “besmirching,” a fictional character. But one might have a civil conversation once in a while. Which is what these comment boards are supposed to be about. Didn’t anyone ever tell you, if you have nothing illuminating to add, or nice to say, it’s preferable that you say nothing at all?

    2. johninPCFL July 18, 2015

      Look at the precedence again. This work was written first and shelved: “That man is hardly present in Watchman, which is apparently an early draft of the novel that eventually became Mockingbird. “

    3. charleo1 July 19, 2015

      Well, it is a bit disappointing, “idamag.” But my sense is, “To Set A Watchman,” could never be a stand alone novel, and thus would have never gotten off the publisher’s desk without the brilliantly crafted Mockingbird. That being so, one might assume Watchman is nothing more than the author, or more likely the publisher, who struck upon the idea there was some, “Mockingbird,” money left on the table. And all it would take to retrieve it, was a little rework on the original to create a sequel. This, “sequel,” taking more from an original script, that had been mostly scraped in order for Mockingbird to be a contemporary piece, that lent insight, and support to the Civil Rights movement that was taking place in the South at the time of book’s release. Now contrast that with what we know was the original plot. The one that portrayed Atticus as a man that was very personally racist, but a lawyer first. One who put his racism aside in order to mount an heroic, and successful defense of a Black man accused of rape. And what you have now, is an almost apologist theme. That says, yes we have our certain laws, and ways in the South, but justice still gets done. A completely different story that serves to exonerate, and absolve the racism that dwells in the heart. And asks a different question altogether. Why are the Northerners still picking at us?

  2. Anne G. Arsenault July 18, 2015

    Does anyone believe that a person is always heroic? Atticus as a lawyer believed he had a duty to help those who needed legal help, but at home he could be racist as were all the people around him. As a child, I found these two fathers hard to reconcile. The public father was a liberal and proud of it, but when he spoke of my boyfriends (whom he obviously was not happy with) he used racial epithets. I learned to accept two sides of him: his childhood upbringing in a biased family and the better person who learned through education that all people had the right to be equal.

    1. quickmatch July 18, 2015

      I agree entirely. Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote in her biography of Voltaire “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” What is described of Finch in Mockingbird is an extremely principled man devoted to the rule of law; in Watchman we see his flawed, racist side. Taken together, in story-chronological order, we see a man who surpasses his flaws to perform honorably. If we all could follow that pattern there would be fewer Charleston massacres.

  3. whenpiggsfly July 19, 2015

    It’s amazing that – considering all the words that have been written about “Watchman’s” publication – there’s been only one article (NYT) that has even MENTIONED Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, who first saw the Watchman draft back in 1957 and said it needed LOTS of work.

    That work turned a sow’s ear into the silk purse, “Mockingbird”.

    Based on how insistent Hohoof was about the draft being “not fit for publication” in 1957, can there be any motive for it seeing the light of day in 2015 other than to increase Lee’s already massive estate ?


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