Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” In “Mockingbird,” a book once described by Oprah Winfrey as “our national novel,” Atticus praised American courts as “the great levelers,” dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” In “Watchman,” set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state “to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP” and describes N.A.A.C.P.-paid lawyers as “standing around like buzzards.”
In Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, we get a huge reveal in the first chapter that the paragon of virtue, fairness, and equality, Atticus Finch, has become a racist in the 20 years since the events that transpired in To Kill a Mockingbird. In Mockingbird, Finch was the lawyer who defended a black man who was wrongly accused in Jim Crow Alabama. He declared that all men are created equal and that the courts should be impartial. His young daughter, Scout, chronicled his principled stand and this character has served as an inspiration to millions. In Watchman, set in the early 1950s when the Civil Rights Movement is just getting underway, we see a different Atticus. According to reports, he is a racist who has attended Klan meetings and sits on the local White Citizen’s Council.
In a New York Times review of Watchman, Michiko Kakutani, gives the synopsis of Finch’s change, which proves shocking to his now grown daughter, Scout, upon her return to Alabama from New York:
Kakutani describes this transformation of Atticus Finch as “disturbing” and “disorienting” and asks the pertinent question, “How could the saintly Atticus — described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in “Mockingbird” — suddenly emerge as a bigot?” Watching reactions on Twitter and in comment streams, people are already rejecting the book because it does not fit their lifelong, idealistic view of Finch. Disturbing and Disorienting, indeed.
But, the question is answered in Finch’s questions to Scout. “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” His justification for opposing integration is separated in his mind from defending the falsely accused Tom Robinson years ago. For Finch, justice and fairness are important concepts as applied to the individual. But, one should not go too far and alter all of society to make all things equal. Everyone is equal before the law, but that doesn’t mean that worlds should collide. There are limits. Finch’s integrity and fairness alters when his own world, the world of the segregated South immersed in racial separation, is threatened by the very courts that he once appealed to. Finch will stand for justice for a wrongly accused man as an esteemed lawyer, but he will not accept his very way of life being threatened.
The transformation of Finch is incredibly important in understanding the Jim Crow South. For many good people (and they were good people), they strove to treat people fairly and with kindness. Just like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. But, at the end of the day, they went back to their lives and homes and place in society. Kindness and fairness had limits and was appropriate as long as the social order was maintained. This is the concept of Noblesse Oblige, where the good man shows that he is good by how he treats his inferior. But, caught up in the concept of Noblesse Oblige is the superiority of one over another and the ultimate oppression of those on the receiving end of the kindness. Once the superiority is threatened, the kindness and fairness and nobility of the one who consideres himself superior evaporates and gives way to a fight for his very way of life.
In asking how this can happen, the truth is revealing. It can happen to anyone at any time. We have our ideals and they are important to us. But, when our “way of life” is threatened, many of our ideals are shown for what they really are. Just bits and pieces of a life that we have constructed for ourselves that enables us to fit well in a larger society. We are social and cultural creatures and, like Finch, the pull of our culture and what is possible and not possible eventually wears us down and causes us to conform to it. Or, we just find ourselves fighting to maintain our place in the world, even if it is a world of corruption. For Finch, as good of a man as he was, he saw no problem with maintaining white supremacy. It was the way of things.
This phenonmenon of people sacrificing truth for expediency is universal and occurs throughout history. I wrote a book last year detailing how this exact thing took place among Southern Evangelicals in the past in regard to Race (When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, NewSouth Books, 2014). If Watchman had been released at the time, Atticus Finch and his transformation, would have made a good case study for the book. Or, an example of how people with the best morality, intentions, and character, can eventually be subverted by a larger culture because they seek to accomodate themselves to it and find their place in the world. Like the frog in the kettle, the man who does not recognize the narrative of the world around him will slowly but eventually boil to death, all while praising the water.
Many of the social controversies in America today are actually about one group seeking to preserve their power or “way of life” over another. Or, another group seeking to gain power for themselves when they have not had it. Atticus Finch shows us that the problem might not solely reside in a personal lack of understanding or honor or desire for equality or in the presence of actual racism or hatred of others, but rather, the real problem might lie in a desire to preserve our own lives against all threats and opposition. If the problem is not in a lack of education or enlightenment, but in a deep seated self-centeredness rooted in fear of loss, then the ultimate solution is not found in social reconstruction, but in heart transformation.
With, Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch is suddenly much more human and realistic and becomes the perfect Southern protagonist. Noble, moral, kind, and fair on a personal level, but ultimately most interested in preserving his own way of life and the way of life of his people, even if it means that he participates in the oppression of others. Atticus Finch, rescued from the unapproachable mount, now becomes the example of what happens to all of us who tie ourselves to noblesse oblige as a demonstration of personal advancement instead of agape love, which sacrifices itself for others. Only in the Cross of Christ and the sacrificial love that flows from him do we see another story, a better way of Jesus, that does not seek to save society as a good place for us to live, prosper, and be safe and secure, but seeks to die to self-perseveration so that others may find life through what He gives away. And, that sacrificial love is what truly saves and destroys the power of oppression. Atticus Finch doesn’t have it on his own. None of us do. We are all susceptible to corruption and self-centeredness and fear, and from that place we are all capable of oppressing others. I have not read the book yet, but if that is the story that Harper Lee portrays over the course of both books, then she truly is a literary genius.
And, we all need to listen to her because Atticus Finch is each one of us. And, each one of us is in desperate need of Someone to rescue us from ourselves.