It’s been heartbreaking to see so many intelligent, well-intentioned people wringing their hands in horror at the release of “Go Set A Watchman,” Harper Lee’s sequel — or maybe rough draft — to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Particularly at issue is the revelation that later in life, heroic lawyer Atticus Finch becomes a racist and, in fact, a card-carrying member of the KKK. Sacrilege!
Personally, I was going to stay out of this one — the book just looks like a money grab, if you ask me — but when two of the estimable people begrudging the treatment of their beloved Finch are Telegram & Gazette Columnist Dianne Williamson and Worcester Magazine columnist Janice Harvey, well … perhaps something needs to be said. Because here’s the truth: Atticus Finch has always been racist. And as with the racists you know, love and have holiday dinners with in real life, that’s not all he is, but in “Mockingbird,” Finch is soaking in privilege, whereas the black man he’s defending, Tom Robinson, has no voice or agency whatsoever.
Really, nothing in Finch’s defense of Robinson is about Robinson. We learn nothing about the man at all. Instead, the jury learns how good a person Finch is, how the jury is swayed that they can trust him. But don’t take it from me, there’s been plenty of scholarly writing on the subject.
Take, for example, Angela Shaw-Thornburg, a literature professor at South Carolina State University, who, as quoted in the New Republic, “also identified problems with Finch’s ‘paternalistic and downright accommodationist approach to justice.’ She describes teaching the novel at a ‘minority majority institution’ where students are ‘trying to figure out why they feel unvoiced by the literature they are reading’ and she diagnoses the same problem … ‘how little we see of Tom Robinson, whose life and death would presumably be at the center of this story.” She questioned whether the novel was ‘too dated to be taught in contemporary classrooms.’”
Shock! Horror! “To Kill a Mockingbird” is, and always has been, a story about how a white savior saves a black man from injustice. Well, sort of. Robinson’s found guilty and then shot in prison, but Finch tried really hard! I find this deeply uncomfortable … and I think Harper Lee did, too — a supposition “Watchman” actually seems to lay out. What the book shows is a tragic injustice and white people congratulating themselves on how enlightened they are. What readers focused on is not the former, but instead the latter, often congratulating themselves on their enlightenment. Is it any wonder Lee went into seclusion after the book came out? I’d be disturbed if I were her, too.
Still, none of this means you have to let go of all the positive lessons that you took away from “Mockingbird.” If the book taught you something about decency and racism, then by all means, go with that. Spider-Man taught me all about responsibility and heroism, and I didn’t abandon those beliefs when the awful “Clone Saga” was published in the ’90s, nearly ruining the character forever. Your Atticus is still your Atticus, and can’t ever be taken away from you.
But, just like that racist uncle you love and still want to gag, there’s a bit more to him than was originally apparent.
Victor D. Infante is a columnist for The Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette.