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.