On Revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird, 18 Years Later
With the recent release of Go Set A Watchman, I realized that I had never revisited To Kill A Mockingbird as an adult. While I have qualms about the publication of Watchman, I found some of the questions it raised interesting; also, in truth, I wanted to see if Mockingbird really lived up to the fuss now that I can follow a book on multiple levels and I wasn’t being forced to read it.
I can’t pretend that I wasn’t also drawn back to the book with current American events weighing heavily on me. When I read the book at 14, I couldn’t conceive of a day in the future when I would be watching helplessly while police murdered black citizens. I grew up in a cocoon of whiteness where many racists seemed at least ashamed enough to keep their slurs behind closed doors and I was naive enough to think that these were the death throes of American racism. I had no idea. None at all. So when the hype around Watchman put the story back in front of me, I thought I should see if I could gain any new perspective.
Scout vs. Jean Louise
I have to confess that, at first, I found myself wishing for the adult narrator that Lee originally wrote in Watchman. I wasn’t allowed to be a child even when I was a child, and the territory of children remains uncomfortable to me. As I read, however, I came to realize the brilliance of using Scout as the narrator in place of the adult Jean Louise.
Harper Lee set out to write a novel that broached the topic of racism in a time when racism was common. (A thought: Atticus tells Scout not to say [slur] because it’s “common,” primarily meaning “vulgar” in that context but also subtly meaning widespread. See what Lee did there?) Even otherwise nice people could be ignorant; many or most had been indoctrinated to believe that people of color were unfortunately but naturally inferior, similar to the way that a nice person who is a literalist Christian might act decently toward unrepentant sinners but sadly think that they would all still be going to hell.
When one sets out to educate a person of ignorance, one runs the risk of encountering a number of pitfalls. Being too preachy will turn people off, as will combating people head-on about their thoughts and beliefs; unwinding a dangerous belief so deeply ingrained in a culture takes the kind of meticulous skill that bomb squads lust after. People will fight you for their beliefs even if they love you. People will disown their families and commit terrible acts of injustice purely fueled by belief. People also don’t take kindly to unasked-for education; we tend to think that we believe the right beliefs, otherwise, why would we believe them at all?
Of course, Atticus Finch didn’t set out to educate the audience. He set out to educate his children.
Atticus Finch didn’t stop being moral past the issue of racism; he also taught Scout and Jem how to be good neighbors and good kids in general. He expected Jem to make amends after he destroyed Mrs. Dubose’s bushes and he expected the children to respect Arthur “Boo” Radley as a person and a neighbor instead of a figment of legend. Atticus Finch is a man of southern values recognizable to anybody who grew up on that side of the Mason-Dixon, which I think is significant: Atticus is not an outsider, he’s part of the tribe. He is a person in whom one can recognize themselves, recognize values that one already knows to be good.
Once Lee has set Atticus up as a good person and father who is part of the tribe, the reader can accidentally learn from him as he teaches his children how to behave. The ignorance of children is not a shortcoming that puts our hackles up; we expect them to need to be shaped and led. I don’t think it’s an accident that Atticus doesn’t condescend toward even the most awful adults in the story, instead choosing to look for the good in most. Using Scout as a child narrator allows Lee to maneuver the reader past his or her natural defenses.
There’s another effect of having a child narrator: it turns one’s stomach to hear the ignorance of racist adults coming from her mouth, knowing firsthand that she truly doesn’t know what she’s saying. Scout occasionally parrots things that she hears others say, or asks Atticus what people mean by certain phrases, and you can see how easy it would be for her to integrate those words and ideas right down to her bones. Easiest thing in the world but for Atticus there to steer her away.
I’ve seen the criticism that To Kill A Mockingbird is perhaps immature because it shows racism seen through the eyes of a child, but that’s part of what makes it widely beloved in a culture that still struggles badly with ingrained racism. We can love Mockingbird and learn from it without feeling defensive. And we can sit at the feet of Atticus Finch without even realizing that we also were in need of an education.
Who is Atticus Finch, really?
Ever since Watchman, Atticus turned out to be a horrible racist, people have been looking for hints that the Atticus Finch we love and admire was secretly harboring Klan affiliations even while he was telling Scout not to use racial slurs because they were vulgar and that one of the worst things white people could do would be to take advantage of black people, who were already at a strong disadvantage in society. People who maybe haven’t read the book since I first read it posit that Atticus didn’t really stand up against racism just because he defended Tom Robinson, that he might have just been doing his job but didn’t want [disgusting slurs] around him in his personal life (clearly not true if you’ve read it recently, so I’m glad I did).
What I found, firstly, is how much more I appreciate Atticus as an adult. Not that I ever did not appreciate Atticus, but with the wisdom of adulthood (assuming that I have gained any at the ripe age of 32) comes more understanding. When I was little more than a child myself, I couldn’t see Atticus with much more enlightenment than Scout does; as an adult, I found myself grinning at his fathering and proud of his moral compass. The same moral compass that makes Atticus insist Jem would of course have to withstand an investigation for stabbing Bob Ewell, that he couldn’t make it go away just because he was Atticus Finch, also led Atticus to treat Calpurnia like family and to defend Tom Robinson earnestly even though it put him and his family in real danger.
It’s his moral compass that makes me glad Ms. Lee decided to re-write the novel and make Atticus a force for good. While I certainly think that the original scenario in Go Set A Watchman could have been honest and compelling if she had proceeded with that story originally, the Atticus of that story is an Atticus that we all know already. We have seen this Atticus in history books, at political rallies, at family reunions, maybe in our own living rooms. There are more examples of white people doing the wrong thing toward people of color than one could shake a hundred sticks at; it’s finding a privileged man who stands up for what is right simply for the virtue of it being right that is hard to do. The privileged man has the option of going along to get along and doing the easy thing with no consequences to himself.
Atticus could have made excuses. He could have said he didn’t want to subject Scout and Jem to any trouble that might come of defending Tom Robinson. In truth, he didn’t even have to make excuses because nobody would have thought it amiss for him not to go out of his way to defend Robinson. It would be the expected thing of anybody but Atticus Finch to put forth a nominal effort with the foreknowledge that a black man would always, always be convicted. We know this because, historically, that’s usually exactly what happened. We often think of the evils of racism as the injustices people commit against people of color; the other side of evil is the deafening silence of those who could have acted for good but did not due to self-interest.
Atticus did the hard thing at personal cost. In a world where we have seen Watchman Atticus fail people of color more times than is bearable, Mockingbird Atticus reminds us that there is another way we can act. Mockingbird Atticus reflects not what we are but drives us closer to what we should be. He sets the bar higher; he’s a man who maybe looks like you or your father but does better than you thought you could or should in the same situation. He’s a foil against our worst qualities but a beacon of our best potential.
Mockingbird Atticus is the only real Atticus Finch. The truth as we understand it about Watchman is that the text was an early draft that Lee’s editor advised her to change. Remembering that Atticus Finch is not a real person and that characters are used to tell stories with greater themes, we know that, narratively, certain elements needed to come into play for the story to have resonance. The character that Atticus originally played, the character who embodied disappointing racism in the hearts of people that you love, shifted in To Kill A Mockingbird to Maycomb society as a whole; Atticus Finch shifted to be the foil that elucidated society’s shortcomings. Lee made it clear time and again in Mockingbird that Atticus Finch did not share society’s views on race and that he was compassionate toward people of color; to suppose, then, that the “real” Atticus was buried in a text that she may or may not have given permission to publish decades after the fact seems flimsy, logically. That early Atticus was cocooned and re-emerged a butterfly.
Isn’t White Savior Atticus just another white person taking credit for the work of people of color?
I relate to this idea a lot when I delve into sexism. It’s frustrating for me when a man gets thoughtful attention for conveying the same “radical, progressive, thought-provoking” ideas that women have been screaming unheard for decades. It’s frustrating, but it makes a terrible kind of sense: as a woman, the men who see me as being less . . . well, they see me as being less. Words coming out of my mouth mean less to them than a man saying the same thing, or less than what their own superior man-perceptions tell them. Of course those men will listen to one man before they will listen to a thousand women. It’s self-perpetuating. That man can be heard because he’s part of their tribe. I cannot because I am not; because I am perceived as less, less valid are my ideas and my feelings and my experiences.
The same tribal attitudes obviously exist with racism. I’ve written before about being raised in a racist household. Even though my dad is only(!) moderately racist compared to some others I’ve known, you could pit him against the most brilliant minds among people of color and, no matter how badly he might lose that debate in the view of an unbiased moderator, my father and people who think like him would not be able to fathom that they were in the wrong. In their minds, they have a natural advantage that blackness cannot overcome, even in when you take silly things like “facts” into account. You might be fine for a [slur] but you’re still a [slur] and we all know that some animals are more equal than others so get back down in your place before we put you there.
People like my father can’t hear the truth from the mouths of people they believe are less. No great supporter of women, either, he demonstrated this to me time and again through my life in any number of ways, but primarily through being unwilling or unable to hear anything I expressed.
It sucks. I’ll say that plain. It sucks when you can throw every golden dart of reason into a bullseye and still lose because you can never make up the points unfairly spotted to the other team, who incidentally also made all of the rules and gave themselves all of the extra points before graciously allowing us to play with them.
It makes Atticus’s role important, though, even if the reason why sticks in one’s craw. He can be seen and heard in a way that even the adult Jean Louise could not have been (being a girl, an’ all). It’s not fair. It’s not fair at all but it’s true to life. We have to know better to do better and can’t anybody tell us better if we aren’t able to hear them.
I now think of Atticus as being less savior and more translator, a line between two disparate points. You have those who are suffering and those who are oblivious to the suffering that they cause, the latter of whose circular illogic, inculcated ideas, and unfairly-granted greater power preclude most attempts by the former to end the cycles of abuse. He’s the friendly face who can nudge you when you’re being self-absorbed and actually have a fair shot at pulling your head out of your ass. If you’re being a jackass and a stranger tells you that you’re being a jackass, you’ll fight them; if a friend tells you, you might sit up and listen, finally able to hear.
I’m glad that I revisited To Kill A Mockingbird. I never truly understood before the subtleties that justify the enormous hype around it. I lacked any kind of real-world understanding of racism when I read the book the first time around, so I learned alongside Scout; as an adult who understands the dynamics of racism slightly better, I’m able to appreciate Lee’s skill in broaching the topic. While it’s obviously vital that we explore the topic of racism mainly through the eyes of people of color, I think Mockingbird still has an important role to play in opening minds so that the voices of people of color can be heard by those who would shut them out against change.