Why You Should Thank Harper Lee for Tearing Down Your Childhood Hero

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It’s been more than 50 years since Harper Lee published her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In that time, a lot has changed and nothing has changed.

Our schools are still highly segregated and unequal – but we justify that with standardized test scores. Our prisons are still disproportionately filled with black and brown people – but we justify that with the War on Drugs. Racial minorities are still gunned down in the street while their killers get off scot-free – but we justify that with a dysfunctional justice system.

Yes, we have our first black president but most people of color still live under the shadow of white privilege and a government sanctioned caste system.

Now comes “Go Set a Watchman” a book Lee wrote before “Mockingbird” but that works best as a sequel.

Does it matter? Is it still relevant?

I’d say yes.  After all, the original was written as people across the nation were struggling to overthrow the old racist system. And today many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still engaged in that same struggle.

In a world where the majority cling desperately to colorblindness, it’s refreshing to read a book that proclaims black lives matter – even if it was written in the 1950s.

The most striking thing about the new novel is its portrayal of Atticus Finch. In “Mockingbird” he’s described as the quintessential hero – a white lawyer putting himself at great personal risk in a doomed attempt to defend an innocent black man. In “Watchman” Atticus is… well… a bit of a racist.

He’s 20 years older, has joined a neighborhood committee dedicated to keeping the races separate and we learn that at one time he had even been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

How can we reconcile THIS Atticus with the one we remember from our childhoods? Is it even worth trying? Is the book worth reading?

Let’s start with the book’s literary value. Questions abound about its publication. Lee, 88, lives in a nursing home and is reportedly in ill health. After all this time, did she really want this book out there now or is that the result of overzealous publishers who know any book with her name on it will be a best seller? Moreover, her sister, Alice, served as a protector of Harper’s legacy but almost as soon as she died, the book was slated for publication.

And when you actually crack it open, it’s clear that certain passages are almost identical to others in “Mockingbird.” You can see how the one book lead to the other. Moreover, there are places that could use expansion and others that could use a bit of editing.

However, despite its shortcomings, from the first page to the last “Watchman” is like returning home to Maycomb County.

In the first chapter, we share a 20-something Jean Louise’s excitement on the train from New York south to visit her family, because we want to see these people again, too. Unlike a simple rereading of the classic “Mockingbird,” this time the characters have grown, changed and act in unexpected ways. Like our protagonist, though, we’re in for many a rude awakening.

Scout’s brother, Jem, is dead, and his absence is felt throughout most of the book. At first, I was angry about this. I thought it was simply bad writing, trying to artificially limit the characters. But then I realized Lee had already set up Jem’s demise back in “Mockingbird.” After all, their mother died around the same age from a heart attack – a congenital defect on her side of the family.

Jem’s absence is irksome because it’s real. Too many times in life people who mean so much to us just disappear leaving a hole never to be filled again.

Likewise, Dill is hardly to be seen. However, this shouldn’t be surprising. Both books are semi-autobiographical and his character is modeled after Harper’s childhood friend – Truman Capote. In the novel just as in life, our heroine, Scout/Harper, and Dill/Truman grew apart.

In his place we get Hank – a character never mentioned in “Mockingbird” but who apparently was around – somewhere. He serves as Scout’s boyfriend. Though he’s drawn a bit vaguely, through him we get to see the kind of woman Jean Louise has grown into.

The Scout of “Watchman” is different than her 6-8-year-old self, too. But it’s easy to see how the little girl of the previous book could become the intelligent but restless woman in this text.

Calpurnia is much changed. She no longer works for the family. In fact, she seems to have enclosed herself in the Quarter – the part of town where only the black people live.

With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education,  Maycomb’s black folks seem much less inclined to smile and nod and serve every passing whim of white people. They have an inkling that maybe things could be different, that maybe they’re entitled to equal rights, after all. And these new possibilities come between Jean Louise and the woman who raised her more than any other.

Calpurnia is the one who explained to her what it means to be a woman. She explained everything from menstruation to sexual intercourse. Yet these new possibilities in social justice make it impossible for the two women to have a proper homecoming.

I wonder: would Jean Louise really not begrudge Calpurnia all the rights and privileges she so easily expects as her own right? It’s hard to say but still very sad.

On the other hand, Aunt Alexandra hasn’t changed much. She’s still disapproving, tyrannical yet emotional. Likewise, Uncle Jack is much the same. He’s grown more eccentric but it’s easy to recognize the friendly doctor who bandaged Scout’s hand after she punched her cousin for calling her father a racial epithet in “Mockingbird.” And neither does Atticus seem drastically different at first. He’s older and suffers from terrible arthritis. But at first glance he’s the same caring, wise paternal figure of our remembrances.

For about 100 pages the book is a mostly meandering return to a world we never thought we’d see again. Then everything changes with the bombshell of Atticus’ recent pro-segregation activities.

How can it be possible? Can this really be Atticus Finch? Or is this just bad writing?

We know the character is based on Harper’s own father, Amasa Lee. Is this really more of a portrait of the real man than the fictional one?

It’s hard to say. But as we read on it becomes clear that, yes, this is still the Atticus we remember. But we didn’t know him as well as we thought.

(WARNING: Limited spoilers ahead.)

The heart of the novel is when Jean Louise confronts her father about his seemingly new attitude. In typical Atticus style, he argues with her almost like he was defending himself in court. Some of his defense makes a weird kind of sense. He says he briefly joined the Klan just to see who was behind those hoods. He wanted to know whom he was dealing with. Moreover, his participation in this segregation society was to serve as a moderating influence. He wanted to make sure they didn’t get up to too much trouble.

But this is only half an answer. As he continues, it becomes clear that Atticus actually does believe some of the racist rhetoric of his times. He really doesn’t want black people and white people to be put on an equal footing. He justifies this by saying black people aren’t ready yet. They haven’t been prepared for the rights and privileges of white folks. Maybe some day they will be, but not today.

It’s a disgusting and patronizing argument – infantilizing an entire people. And hearing this out of Atticus mouth – it’s like seeing a spider crawl across a gorgeous face.

Similarly creepy is his appeal to state’s rights – an argument we still hear today from our Tea Party friends. Perhaps it WAS Southern white people’s responsibility to raise up the people of color in their midst – but if they weren’t going to do it, it was past time that someone did!

Scout doesn’t let her father get away with any of this. She does her best to verbally destroy him and run away forever.

But before she can escape, she runs into her Uncle Jack. What he does is equal parts rationality and sexism. I can’t imagine any modern author resolving the story this way. Perhaps that’s for the best. In some ways, Uncle Jack’s actions are more disturbing than Atticus’ opinions.

In the end, Scout learns to accept her father for who he is. Yes, he is dead wrong about black people, but most of the time he’s still the same loving Atticus. It’s a good point. How many people do you love who believe reprehensible things? Probably a lot. That doesn’t mean you stop loving them.

I’d say that’s the central point of the novel. Each of us is responsible for creating our own conscience. We can’t rely on any value system that comes to us prepackaged. We have to examine every facet of our worlds and decide what it is we truly believe. And in doing so we’ll probably reach divergent opinions.

The only way Lee could do that was by showing us the heroic Atticus as nothing but a flesh and blood human being, full of the same frailties and mistaken thinking.

In the end, Scout’s thoughts seem more modern than anyone else’s in the book, more in line with our own views about social justice. But her conclusion only goes so far. We’re still left with questions. How do we reach loved ones who disagree with us? How can we tell if our own ethical intuitions are correct? How can white folks best help people of color secure their rightful place in society?

None of these have answers, but Lee is still asking the right questions. More than 50 years later, we’re still searching for solutions.

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5 thoughts on “Why You Should Thank Harper Lee for Tearing Down Your Childhood Hero

  1. Lloyd,
    I have just subscribed to your blog and think we have some basic differences in outlook. We will never close the achievement gap between blacks and whites, it’s biological. To back up this statement, I ask you to read The Bell Curve, 1994, and Why Race Matters by Michael Levin, 2006 edition. I will continue to read your blog for awhile.

    Liked by 1 person

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