On Atticus Finch, Harper Lee, and Southern Icons

American actor Gregory Peck (1916 – 2003) stars as lawyer Atticus Finch in the film ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, directed by Robert Mulligan, 1962. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Silver Screen Collection Moviepix

Like many of you I’m a huge fan of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” So it was with a great deal of trepidation and excitement that I bought “Go Set a Watchman,” a novel purported to be Lee’s first and the precursor to her classic story about racism in a small Southern town. This weekend I finished “Go Set a Watchman,” and there’s zero doubt it’s a bad novel. The book’s poorly organized, the perspective is broken, shifting at times from what’s primarily a third person story of Jean-Louise — a grown up 26 year old Scout — into odd internal thoughts of other characters, the plotting is jumpy and poorly transitioned, the stakes are minimal, the characters are undeveloped, the conflict nonexistent, the dialogue frequently turns into long soliloquies. It’s a mess of a book and you can clearly see why Harper Lee didn’t publish it for nearly sixty years. There are scenes that are powerful — almost all of Scout as a young child — but the only reason anyone would care at all about any of the characters in “Go Set a Watchman” is because they’ve already read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and recognize the rough outlines of the characters they came to care about deeply in that book. Scout, Atticus, Jem — now deceased, Dill, Calpurnia all appear in this novel, but they’re older and less recognizable versions of themselves — more bitter, weighted down by the complexities of life.

None of them are particularly likable.

Most of the reviews of “Go Set a Watchman” have focused on the differences between “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” Atticus and this book’s version, now 72 years old, and “racist.” The saintly Southern lawyer who sent thousands of young children of all races scurrying to law school to defend the oppressed and innocent — whereupon after graduation they generally ended up defending the wealthy and guilty instead — attends a racist citizen’s council meeting, reads racist literature, espouses the view that blacks aren’t ready for the full responsibilities of a civil society, and serves as the primary overarching story in a novel that really doesn’t have one otherwise: how will Scout reconcile her child-like belief that her father is perfect with the reality that he is human? The Atticus Finch that we all read about in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is perfect, a marble man. That’s because he’s being viewed from a child’s eyes. The Atticus Finch in “Go Set a Watchman” is being seen with the eyes of an adult. He’s more complicated, less of a symbol. Atticus becomes, shudder, a real person with real character flaws.

While much of the focus of the reporting has been on Atticus’s racism, the more interesting angle to me is Scout’s own racism. Among other things, Jean-Louise/Scout expresses disgust, for instance, at the idea that the races would every intermarry. The lesson: even a liberal on issues of race in 1957 looks racist by 2015 standards. That’s why using history to pinpoint racism is so fraught with peril. Just about every person regardless of race held beliefs in our history that would be racist based upon our present standards. (Of course, you can also persuasively argue — citing social media as your source — that everything is racist in 2015.) Even in “Go Tell a Watchman,” Atticus is the most liberal, other than his daughter, on issues of race in his entire town. The problem? Even the town liberal was still racist. That’s a fascinating window into life, and it suggests that judging historical figures based on present day standards is a fool’s errand. Who knows what commonly held beliefs we have in our society today that will scandalize our grandchildren? History teaches us that none of us are perfect, even the people who think they are perfect today.

Lee’s desire was to write a novel about race in the South, but “Go Set a Watchman,” her initial novel about race in the South, was a total mess. In a quest to examine race in the South, Harper Lee focuses on the South’s response, in particular the city of Maycomb, Alabama, to the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision and its impact upon a small Southern town’s race relations. There’s ample exposition about the tenth amendment, federalism, school standards, the Constitution, all complex issues that remain complex issues in our modern society today. It’s not a story that lends itself to universal truths or clear delineations between right and wrong. Leaving aside the readily apparent flaws of the story, even a perfectly crafted novel about the complexities of federalism in late 1950’s Alabama isn’t selling ten thousand copies, much less tens of millions of copies.

No, if Lee wanted her story to capture the public’s imagination, she had to craft a story that created a clear delineation between right and wrong, good and evil, white and black. That’s why the more I read of “Go Set a Watchman,” the more I thought it’s the perfect book to teach in creative writing alongside “To Kill a Mockingbird.” While “Go Set a Watchman” isn’t a very good novel, it’s a great teaching tool. Seven years ago, while getting an MFA in creative writing at Vanderbilt, I taught Vandy undergrads creative writing. Teaching creative writing was a great job, the only one I’ve ever had that I liked as much as the job I do now. You learn how to write novels when you reread and study them, when you take the time to pull yourself outside the book itself and examine the tools used to construct a story. Writers read books in a different way than the rest of us, just like a builder looks at a house in a way different than a non-builder, they see the structure in place, comprehend the construction, aren’t merely dazzled by what they see in front of them, they know the foundation upon which the home is built.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a deceptively simple story told from a child’s perspective: an innocent black man is charged with a crime he didn’t commit, raping a white woman, and despite the fact that we all see he didn’t do it, he’s convicted of the crime. The child’s father, a brave white lawyer, defends the rapist despite the slings and arrows of derision he faces in his racist hometown. Our narrator, a child who is yet to be spoiled by the structural racism of her town, shares the story through her own eyes. As readers, we’re all transfixed by the injustice, an innocent man is found guilty despite the fact that he’s innocent.

That’s a story that sells.

Hell, it’s still a story that sells. (Look at our current police vs. black victim stories. They still have the same basic framework, right? An innocent black person is killed by a guilty white man. This is essentially the Mockingbird framework brought to 2015, a person being unfairly treated based upon his skin color by a racist person or people in a position of power. As soon as the modern stories get examined in any way, and a complexity arises — was force justified or was it not, for instance? — many on both sides revolt because the complexity confuses the structure in their minds, one side is right, the other is wrong, there is no uncertainty. This is, not surprisingly, the engine behind social media opinion as well. There’s no nuance or complexity, one side is completely right and the other side is completely wrong. The narrative framework that still sells the best, as Mockingbird showed us, is one where the victim is entirely innocent and the guilty person is entirely evil).

In many respects “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a child-like story. Everyone is either good or bad, right and wrong is clearly delineated, Atticus is a noble and upstanding liberal without a shred of racism in his body who will do the right thing no matter what. Tom Robinson, the accused rapist, has never done anything wrong and is a paragon of virtue. The poor white trash family that makes up the alleged rape, the Ewells, dwell firmly on the side of the wrong. Boo Radley is a saint, unfairly trapped inside his old home, until he emerges to save Jem at the perfect time. Reread Mockingbird as an adult and list the major characters who you can’t clearly define as being entirely good or entirely bad.

There’s no one on that list. (Save potentially, Mayella Ewell, the girl who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape).

The two best novels I’ve ever read about race in the South are William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” and Edward P. Jones’s “The Known World.” They don’t tell simple truths, and they aren’t focused on characters who are entirely good or bad. But if you’re not a reader, think about your favorite television shows in our modern era. Is Walter White good or bad? How about Tony Soprano or Don Draper? The more realistic your characters, the more they defy easy categorization. As our great characters in our great stories become more complex, social media has become less so. That’s a fascinating divergence that deserves greater explanation, but for now just think about it. And ask yourselves this: why do some of us embrace complexity in fictional life yet reject it in real life?

Of course Mockingbird wasn’t just a child-like story, it was told from the perspective of a child and first read, for the most part over the ensuing generations, by schoolchildren on the cusp of adulthood themselves. And if you were an adult reading it, the book took you back to the time before you were cynical and the world was complicated. Mockingbird took us all back, regardless of our ages, to the innocence of our youths. To a time before we all came to understand, as 26 year old Scout does in “Go Set a Watchman,” that our child-like perspectives of the world weren’t entirely valid. Mockingbird took us to a time before most of us became smart enough to comprehend that there was an enormous gulf between right and wrong, and that’s where most of us would spend our lives.

The most important part of “Go Set a Watchman” from a historical perspective is the scene when a grown up Scout sits in the same courthouse balcony where she would later watch the trial of Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Instead of watching her father defend an innocent man as a child, a grown up Jean-Louise watches her father preside over a racist citizen’s council meeting. The juxtaposition is extraordinary, Atticus moves from saint to sinner from the same courthouse vantage point over a span of twenty years. In the process Atticus is revealed to us as a real human being, the kind of person who is flawed and imperfect. More importantly, he teaches an important lesson — racists are not all evil men; the same person can be racist and noble about race in the same life. That is, people are complicated. Unfortunately, most of our discussions about race in this country today are too superficial to accept this truth. Just about every story on race that goes viral today features the same simple binary: someone either is or isn’t racist based on a single sentence or a single word. It’s lazy, but boy does it get attention. (See Hogan, Hulk).

Here’s that courtroom scene from “Go Set a Watchman.” I’ve edited passages from pages 108-110. It’s the seed that later gives birth to “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

“Against Mr. O’Hanlon’s humming harangue, a memory was rising to dispute him: the courtroom shifted imperceptibly, in it she looked down on the same heads. When she looked across the room a jury sat in the box, Judge Taylor was on the bench…her father was at his feet: he had risen from a table at which she could see the back of a kinky-woolly head.

Atticus Finch rarely took a criminal case; he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense. The boy had come to him by the way of Calpurnia, told him his story, and had told him the truth. The truth was ugly.

Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl….the defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident.

Atticus pursued the case to its conclusion with every spark of his ability and with an instinctive distaste so bitter only his knowledge that he could live peacefully with himself was able to wash it away…He never counted what it cost him; he never looked back. He never knew two pairs of eyes like his own were watching him from the balcony.”

Reread those paragraphs, that’s essentially the crux of Mockingbird. Only it is told to us in a few paragraphs. At some point an astute editor or reader said, “Take me back here, to this story, to the moment when your young narrator was sitting in the colored balcony watching a rape trial.” And then later on Harper Lee, an editor, or a reader had an even more astute suggestion to make that changed the course of Southern literary history, “Oh, and instead of being found innocent, make the story the exact same and he’s found guilty instead.”

Have over 100 million people read “To Kill a Mockingbird” or seen the movie if Tom Robinson is found innocent at the end of his rape trial?

Of course not.

It’s that final twist, the innocent man found guilty, that turned Mockingbird into a sensation that would change race relations across our country. 

All writers are master manipulators, they see into our hearts and then rip them right out in front of us us. That’s what writing is, an attempt to tell a story so well that everyone takes breathless notice of what you’ve done. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was born in this scene of “Go Set a Watchman.” That’s really the most important part of the book, the moment when Lee’s creativity was born. And then the subtle changes she made to unleash that creativity around the world.

Until two weeks ago Harper Lee never published another book and hadn’t done an interview since 1964. Some were surprised by that, but I’m really not. Lee was a prisoner of her own writing success: What happens if you write a book that everyone loves? Could you ever bear to write another book that some people wouldn’t like? Harper Lee couldn’t.

She wrote the perfect book for the perfect audience at the perfect time.

With the publication of “Go Set a Watchman,” we all learned that neither she nor her characters were actually perfect.

Turns out they were human after all, just like us.  

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