Book Reviews

Defending Atticus Finch

Atticus will endure, as a good, flawed-and yes, often heroic-man who does not always have the right answers but always tries to live by his conscience.

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Forget Me Knot Photography/Flickr

There is a bitter irony in the fact that the final year in the life of legendary novelist Harper Lee, who died last week at 89, was marked by what many saw as her hero's inglorious downfall. Lee's second book, Go Set a Watchman—a sort-of-sequel, sort-of-first-draft to her 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird—showed the revered Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who stood up to racial injustice in the 1930s South, as a cantankerous old bigot defending segregation twenty years later.

Many were appalled; but others applauded. That reaction was summed up in the title of a New York Times op-ed by University of Miami law professor Osamudia James: "Now We Can Finally Say Goodbye to the White Savior Myth of Atticus." On the feminist blog Jezebel, writer Catherine Nichols asserted that without the corrective of Watchman, Mockingbird is a "shameful" and "racist" book, and Atticus is a virtuous white patriarch who believes in being kind to blacks (and women) and keeping them in their place.

The campaign to knock Atticus off his pedestal started long before Watchman. Both Mockingbird and its hero have been criticized for naïve and simplistic moralism and for perpetuating the idea that a white man's individual goodness and benevolence is an adequate answer to pervasive racial oppression. But the naysayers are wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird will endure as Lee's legacy, and its morality is far less naïve and more complex than the critiques allow. Atticus, too, will endure, as a good, flawed—and yes, often heroic—man who does not always have the right answers but always tries to live by his conscience.

It is quite true that, as Malcolm Gladwell argued in a 2009 essay in The New Yorker, Atticus does not challenge the system that relegates blacks to second-class status; he simply tries to do his best to ensure that they are treated decently within that system. (Or, as Nichols puts it more scathingly, he believes in "powerful white people being very polite.") At times he minimizes societal bigotry; memorably, he waves off the Ku Klux Klan in Maycomb County as a basically harmless "political organization" whose members could be shamed into dispersing when the Jewish store owner they were harassing reminded them that "he'd sold 'em the very sheets on their backs." At times, he also seems to treat racism as lower-class vulgarity or a bizarre mental affliction: he chides the eight-year-old narrator, "Scout," for using a racial slur because "it's common" and expresses bafflement that "reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up."

But while this is Atticus's perspective, it's certainly not the novel's perspective—and it may not even be Atticus's perspective eventually. We see, for example, that many of Maycomb's "fine folk" are just as bigoted as the "white trash": the schoolteachers, the prosecutor, the Finches' next-door neighbor Mrs. Dubose, the ladies in the missionary circle of Scout's aunt Alexandra. What's more, toward the end of the book, after Tom Robinson, the black man Atticus defends on a charge of raping a white woman, is wrongly convicted, Atticus has a conversation with his children in which he makes it very clear that racism is deeply entrenched in their culture: "In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins. They're ugly, but those are the facts of life." While he still goes on to frame the issue in terms of individual character—a white man is "trash," no matter what his background, if he mistreats a black man—he clearly sees the bigger picture: "Don't fool yourselves—it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it." This is not a man who, as his detractors claim, is comfortable with white supremacy as long as he can be nice to black folk.

Later on, when Tom is shot dead during a doomed prison escape attempt while awaiting appeal, public opinion in Maycomb regards this as "typical" of how feckless and lawless blacks are. But Atticus, who believes there was a "good chance" of winning on appeal or securing a pardon, has this to say: "I guess Tom was tired of white men's chances and preferred to take his own." It is a quiet but powerful statement that, against "systemic oppression," the decency of the "good" white men (and women) can only accomplish so much. The limits of individual virtue are thus recognized within the novel itself. As a "white savior," Atticus fails—not because of his individual faults, but because the system is hopelessly stacked against the black man he is trying to save.

Would Atticus support the dismantling of this system and accept civil rights? It's hard to tell. In his closing argument at Tom's trial, he takes a swipe at "the Yankees" and Eleanor Roosevelt for haranguing the South over its failure to live up to the Jeffersonian principle of equality; while this is undoubtedly meant to show the jurors that he's a Southern patriot, the comment probably reflects, at least in part, his actual views. ("No matter how bitter things get … this is still our home," he tells Scout earlier.) Yet in the same speech, he also offers an impassioned defense not only of equality for all before the law, but of the equal moral worth of whites and blacks. And on a personal level, he treats blacks as equals, not objects of paternalistic condescension. When his sister upbraids him for saying that a prominent member of the community "despises Negroes" in front of Calpurnia, the black cook, Atticus replies tartly, "Anything fit to say at the table's fit to say in front of Calpurnia."

Could this Atticus have aged into the bigoted Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, perhaps seen with more clarity by the now-grown daughter who once idolized him? If it is, such a change requires more explanation than Watchman provides. Mockingbird was developed from Watchman's childhood flashbacks with encouragement from an editor who felt the manuscript required a total overhaul; while the characters' names are the same, it is clearly not quite the same story. (Notably, Watchman's Atticus "won acquittal" for a one-armed black man accused of rape, while Mockingbird's Tom Robinson has a crippled arm and gets convicted despite strong evidence of his innocence.)

One interesting possibility, suggested by Lee's biographer Charles J. Shields, is that the evolution of Atticus from Watchman to Mockingbird was due to the personal evolution of Lee's father, Amasa Coleman Lee, the Alabama lawyer, civic leader, and newspaper publisher on whom the character was based. Go Set a Watchman was inspired in large part by Lee's bitterness at her adored father's segregationist stance; but it seems that, while she was revising the manuscript, he was revising his views toward embracing civil rights. If true, this is a hopeful story—just as To Kill a Mockingbird is ultimately hopeful despite its tragic events. Personal values are no substitute for fundamental reforms; but change in the hearts and minds helped make reforms possible.

Harper Lee died in an America that had made vast strides toward equality and justice for all—and at a time when pessimistic and cynical views of race relations prevail, especially among progressives. In this age, Lee's message of universal empathy may seem hopelessly dated. But perhaps that makes it all the more important.

This piece originally appeared at RealClear Politics.

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57 responses to “Defending Atticus Finch

  1. There is no defense for being a straight white man when it comes to Jezebel and the like.

    1. Having a white character that fights racism without him revealing he is actually really racist and put himself and his family at risk defending victims of racism because he actually just wants to teach the minorities the real lesson which is that they are the inferior race and can only depend upon racist whites to protect them from other racist whites is just…well…racist…or something

  2. ‘…as a cantankerous old bigot defending segregation twenty years later.’
    Somewhat ironic that segregation is becoming respectable once again.

  3. It makes sense that the lefties attack individual virtue. They can’t acknowledge the power that one man can have, because if they did, it would force them to re-evaluate their collectivist schemes. Individuals can’t be heroic or virtuous, then they would deserve freedom. They have to be corrupt and evil. Otherwise, there would be no justification for enslaving us all for our own good.

    1. It’s the typical Marxian attack on (classical) liberal icons that embody the principles people want to embrace, by the use of cynical tirades full of self-righteousness. The attack on the character of Atticus Finch reminds me of Lytton Stratchey’s mocking of British heroic liberal icons in his biographical book Eminent Victorians, except that Stratchey would not likely be so worked up by a fictional character in a novel, which makes me wonder if today’s Marxians are prone to seeing hobgoblins everywhere.

  4. Yes,but,what would Paul Atreides have done in the same situation?

    1. Tell me of your homeworld, Usul.

      1. Well,there’s lots of stout,wine,port,gin and porter.Hand rolled cigars are a staple.

        1. Only the royals have scotch,war is brewing.

    2. He would drink some stuff, morph into a Giant worm that smoked a hookah and then kill these people, clone them and then kill them again for a thousand years…or something

  5. There’s something sad aboout people dissecting books and other fiction as if they were reality and really mattered. To compare a book to reality is one thing; to argue the morality of characters and situations within the book, as if it mattered in real life, is just sad.

    1. As you can see from my posts above,I fall in the who gives a fuck category.

    2. I’m gonna disagree, some.

      I think man is fundamentally a story-telling animal. We tell ourselves the stories of our own lives. We tell each other stories constantly. There’s a reason why the word “narrative” means both “story” and “world-view”.

      The fictional stories that we tell are important because they let us experiment and explore, and fictional situations can give us insights that we carry over into our “real” lives. There’s no telling how many lessons I have learned from fiction, some of which work out pretty well IRL, some of which don’t.

      A story about one man standing up to the system, that paints him in a good light, is a fundamentally libertarian narrative. Debating the merits and morality of that narrative is far from the worst way to spend a little time.

      1. I have questions about the applicability of this narrative to people’s lives.

        White people imaging themselves the saviors of black people has been disastrous in lots of ways. To whatever extent the Atticus Finch narrative is responsible for that, it’s responsible.

        There are serious questions about how widely applicable this morally unambiguous narrative is in our morally ambiguous world, too. If certain white people can be convinced to support anything in unambiguous terms (like the drug war) despite the moral ambiguity–because of the Atticus Finch narrative–then that is not a good thing.

        Has anyone bothered to ask black people if they think our criminal justice system (properly motivated like Atticus Finch) is the solution to their problems?

        1. That’s the interesting part: when people internalize these narratives, which are constructed in an artificial world, and carry them into the real world, what are the first and second order effects?

        2. Who said they support the drug war (or anything) in unambiguous terms? They support it in ambiguous terms.

          1. It still isn’t morally ambiguous in terms of cocaine, crack, and heroin.

            Nobody’s talking about legalizing those. Progressives don’t care about going after those drugs with all the force the government can muster either.

            Gotta save those black people from the scourge, you know. No matter what it takes.

            In morally unambiguous terms. Crush them. Throw them in prison. If you let them out, keep them on under the thumb or a probation officer. Got a crack conviction that won’t let you get a decent job for the rest of your life? Too bad!

            Morally unambiguous.

            1. They’re doing it for the good of the black community, too.

              They’re sure of it.

      2. I understand arguing about the moral lessons in fiction. What is sad is arguing about whether a fictional character is moral. Fictional characters exist only as far as a particular story goes; they otherwise do not exist. Arguing about a character’s morality implies that character has a life and existence outside the story itself, which is plainly ridiculous.

    3. What I find bizarre is fiction arousing people about fact. Supposedly Uncle Tom’s Cabin got people upset about slavery because of the mean supervisor of slaves in that work. Why would that upset them worse than a true story about an actual mean supervisor of slaves? Unless the fiction was made to look like something about a particular person they already knew, like the play within the play Hamlet.

      1. Or all the hoopla that supposedly came from The Jungle. That book was terrible.

      2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin challenged the “happy slave” narrative.

  6. Whether you see Finch as a white saviour or a conflicted Southerner and Mockingbird as a racist screed or a message of universal empathy, don’t you dare suggest that maybe it’s just a story and not every damn thing’s gotta have some Deep Political Meaning. We all know nothing can be taken at face value because it’s all dog whistles and problematic triggers and subtle micro-aggressions and victimization paradigms and false consciousness and whatnot because you just gotta whine and complain about absolutely every little thing until nobody gives a shit any more and just wants to punch you in the face so you’ll shut the hell up.

    1. I’m more of a Huck Finn fan.

      1. +1 brush

  7. So the final draft is a 20 year prequel to the rough draft? Is that really a rough draft? Seems like she completely abandoned her original book but incorporated some ideas and charactors from it into a new completely different book. I know it’s probably just semantics but doesn’t really make sense to me to call it a rough draft .

    1. So call it a version. Characters & events can change a lot even in a work by the same title between a serialized version & a version under 1 cover, or between short story & full novel versions. According to the Wikipedia entry, Wolfe called the serial version of The Bonfire of the Vanities a “very public first draft”.

  8. I’m still waiting for someone to bust up my chiffarobe, if you know what I mean.

    1. I know what you mean,and my wife has one and a jewelry armoire.

    2. No, the davenport! The chesterfield!

  9. “Jezebel writer Catherine Nichols asserted that without the corrective of Watchman, Mockingbird is a “shameful” and “racist” book,”

    Can someone please tell me if there’s some reason people continue to cite Jezebel as a reference on…. anything?….

    They’re like some unholy marriage of ‘Stormfront’ and Cosmopolitan, neither of which provides any particular essential-perspective on the universe last i checked.

    I care what Jezebel thinks about American literature in the same way I think “Bass Angler – The Best Magazine in Bass Fishing” provides useful insights into historical Latin American political dynamics.

    1. As an example of what i mean….

      … I have suggested that anytime someone quote ANY writer for a Gawker-associated publication? They be required to list the headlines appearing before and after the quoted piece.

      in this case, just grab a bunch from their front page =

      “Kim Kardashian Thinks Anyone Who Has A Problem With Kanye West Just Doesn’t Get Him”
      “Gigi Hadid’s Boob Popped Out to Say ‘Yolanda’ While Walking ‘Literally the Longest Runway”
      “”Massage Chairs & No Cocaine: Maluca’s Great Advice for Radical Self-Care””
      “Pro-Trump YouTubers Have Seen Some Google Results, Pretty Sure Marco Rubio Is Gay “

      Obviously, these are *serious people* who provide an essential perspective. Why *wouldn’t* you look to them first for literary insight?

      1. Sir, you are clearly a gentleman and a scholar. I trust the senior editors at Reason are considering your suggestion as we speak. I look forward to an announcement from Mr Gillespie adopting your wise policy.

  10. One of the problems with To Kill a Mocking Bird is that it’s frozen that period in time in the minds of a lot of baby boomers. Every time the question of race comes up, they see themselves as Atticus Finch standing against the Klan and the white mob. It makes boomers susceptible to supporting anything and everything so long as it’s cast in terms of racial justice.

    For instance, I am sure there are well-meaning progressives and liberals who supported the drug war on the basis that they were trying to help the black community.

    Someone should write a corrective to To Kill a Mocking Bird like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was a corrective to Conrad’s well-meaning Heart of Darkness. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad skewers the abolitionists back in Britain for supporting the horrors of imperialism on anti-racist and humanitarian grounds. But Achebe showed us that Conrad got it wrong–for some of the same reasons Atticus Finch gets it wrong.

    Liberation is complicated and personal, but black liberation isn’t the story of what white people did. It’s the story of how black people liberated themselves. Telling that story from the perspective of a white man is absurd. Ignoring the contributions of white people–both positive and well-meaning negative–would also necessarily get it wrong. Atticus Finch feeds into both of those problems.

    1. To Kill a Mockingbird is meant to be representative of the civil rights struggle, but it isn’t from the perspective of blacks. Also, it doesn’t account for where roads paved with good intentions can lead, and in that sense, it doesn’t even get right what Heart of Darkness did.

    2. One of the problems with To Kill a Mocking Bird is that it’s frozen that period in time in the minds of a lot of baby boomers. Every time the question of race comes up, they see themselves as Atticus Finch standing against the Klan and the white mob.

      See my post above about the importance of stories and narrative. This is why I think fiction can matter.

    3. “Someone should write a corrective to To Kill a Mocking Bird like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was a corrective to Conrad’s well-meaning Heart of Darkness”

      Have you seen the plot-summary of Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay?

      1. I saw Dogville.

        I think I’ve seen every one of his films except that one.

        He’s gifted. But, my god, his perspective is so defeatist and bleak. After seeing his films, you always feel like you need to go on anti-depressants.

        He killed Bjork, which is like worse than killing a mockingbird!

        Anyway, I just read the plot summary to Manderlay. It reads like a rebuke of American white society.

        Part of Achebe’s rebuke to Conrad was that he wasn’t taking the benefits of colonialism into account–even as Achebe was recognizing its atrocities in Nigeria, as well.

        A white author may not be able to write that book. I can’t write a book about whether the Iraq war was worth the suffering it caused–to the people of Iraq. I can write a book about whether the suffering the war caused was worth it to me. But how the Iraqi people feel about their own suffering isn’t within my purview. I would think an Iraqi book that treated the subject properly would account for the good we did by getting rid of Saddam Hussein as well as the horrors of the occupation and its aftermath. But I can’t speak for the Iraqi people. I can only speak for myself–and maybe other Americans like me.

      2. People imagining they can speak for others–and know what other really want with the certainty necessary to subjugate Nigeria to imperialism, bomb, invade, and occupy Iraq, or launch a Drug War in South Central Los Angeles, like Daryl Gates did, are incredibly dangerous people. I’m sure you remember when many Americans were convinced that the Iraqi people wanted us to bomb and invade them, that the people of South Central wanted Daryl Gates to save them, etc. To the extent that To Kill a Mockingbird feeds the belief that we need to save other people this way, it’s a bad thing.

        If anything, maybe “The Wire” came close to being the rebuke to To Kill a Mockingbird.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wire

        But that show wasn’t written by people in the black community either. Like I said, black liberation is about blacks liberating themselves. The belief that black liberation is something that whites do for blacks is a bad thing–something Manderlay seems to speak to. But once we admit that black liberation isn’t something white people do, don’t we have to also admit that we don’t speak for them either?

        Maybe we should be looking at Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

        1. “To the extent that To Kill a Mockingbird feeds the belief that other people need us to save them this way, it’s a bad thing”.

          Fixed!

  11. You know who else tried to live by his conscience…

    1. Sun Tzu?

    2. Anybody having an out-of-body experience?

  12. How dare Atticus Finch disbelieve a woman’s claim to have been raped.

    1. He must have been a Duke alum.

  13. FWIW, i never thought of “To Kill a Mockingbird” to really be all that much about ‘race’ anyway. Or rather seemed to be far more about “mostly-poor southern whites” and their culture. Black people were really just an incidental detail in a story about a girl growing and learning that ‘people are flawed in different ways’.

    Calpurnia, the black housekeeper and surrogate-mom, isn’t really even given a second-glance for most of the book. Its sort of a “So what” – she’s black, big deal. The issue of the black/white rape thing isnt as much about race than for how it serves to fragment the community and forces otherwise good-people to abandon the truth.

    Which of course someone will say is part of its essential-racism = that it ‘ignores the black voices’ and uses them as furniture in the story. Sure, yes. But that’s because its not about them.

  14. I don’t know if they have comment sections at jezebel, I don’t waste my time over there. I wonder if their local commentariat [can’t/won’t/both] produce anything as thought provoking as those above.

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  16. I’ve never read either book (nor seen any movies or plays if any were adapted from them), but…

    he also seems to treat racism as lower-class vulgarity or a bizarre mental affliction: he chides the eight-year-old narrator, “Scout,” for using a racial slur because “it’s common” and expresses bafflement that “reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up.”

    Is that considered a racist perspective? Seems more like the opinion of vehement antiracists.

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  19. “Or, as Nichols puts it more scathingly, he believes in “powerful white people being very polite.”)”
    Accusing people of making false rape claims and beating up their daughter is “polite”? He must move in different social circles than me. Atticus did NOT limit his defence of Tom Robinson to polite objections. It’s been DECADES since I read that book and I know that.

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