Monday, July 13, 2015

Atticus, Atticus . . .

There’s a hullabaloo brewing over rumors – the book "Go Set A Watchman" itself isn’t out yet – that Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved characters in American literature, is racist.

Few want to believe it, though it appears the rumors are based in fact on reviews and snippets of the book coming out prior to its release this week.

Do I want to scream “say it ain’t so?”

I think I can be planted firmly in the “what did you expect from the South in the 1950s?” camp.
One fundamental thing that many people are forgetting is that Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” is told from the point of view of a child – Scout Finch, the main character in the new book, “Go Set A Watchman,” that reveals Atticus’ racism.

Through the eyes of a child, everything is idealized. Atticus, defending the innocent Tom Robinson, must be kind and sweet and look like Abraham Lincoln, as Popeye would probably put it. Scout might have been privy to the public face of the court case where her father defended Robinson on points of law – and might have seen a softer side to her father when he advised walking around in someone else’s skin to see what it’s like to be them for a while – but she wouldn’t have been privy to everything.

Her barging in on the “mob,” for example, in this clip from the celebrated movie. Do we know all the motivations there, even those of her father? Or do we just assume, like Scout, that her father’s motivations are moral and driven by social justice, rather than by justice as applied by the law? We don’t know if Atticus wants the children to leave for fear of their lives – and would the mob have killed the children to get at Tom Robinson – or because he didn’t want them to hear what came next – Atticus sharing the mob’s racist attitudes but putting them aside for the legal attitude he felt, at this moment, was more important?

We can guess. We can hope. But we don’t know, do we?

About all we do know here is that Scout has picked up a bit of legal terminology from her lawyer father – entailments – and that she’s against them. Against them not because she understands them (I barely do) but because she understands Atticus doesn’t like them. (Entailments, for those who don’t know, is “an old-fashioned form of bequeathing real property” that limits inheritance only to legitimate children. Mr. Cunningham paid Atticus in hickory nuts to help resolve such a problem (what it is we’re not clear on, since Scout herself only understands that entailments are bad). We only have Scout’s understanding because this is Scout’s interpretation of the world she and her father inhabit. She only understands Atticus’ world as explained by Atticus.

Maybe she noticed his early racism. And maybe, given this was Alabama in the1930s, it was just accepted, even by Scout, as normal. She might not understand it, as many children might not. But it was part of who her daddy was – so she accepted it just as she accepted her understanding of entailments form her father.

We’re like Scout, reading “To Kill A Mockingbird.” We want to see Atticus as an ideal. As pure. That’s what all children do with their parents.

“Go Set A Watchman” may indeed be Scout growing up, still loving her father, but now recognizing her father for what he is: A contradictory man, a man who loves the law, but is also racist.

This aspect makes me want to read the book even more.

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