Is Atticus Finch Still a Hero?

SPOILER ALERT and LENGTH WARNING: You probably don't have time for this right now, but if you wonder enough about the controversy swirling around Harper Lee's new book, read on.

The early reviews of Harper Lee's newly published book Go Set a Watchman have nearly all shouted in voices of outrage, or reported in tones of world weary cynicism, that Atticus Finch, our classic moral exemplar from the great American bestseller To Kill a Mockingbird, turns out in this new manuscript to be "really" an ordinary racist and bigot. Reviewers from major papers, magazines, and websites have expressed shock and dismay over this new portrayal of the formerly upstanding small town attorney, once played so well in the famous movie by actor Gregory Peck. Atticus Finch was someone we could look up to, and seek to emulate in our attitudes and conduct. He was a thoroughly admirable individual, a light on a hill for all of us, and now, we're told, the new revelations of the first novel that was actually written about him, which has finally seen the light of day fifty-five years after we first met the man, have shown us the real truth that he is a mere mortal after all, a man of prejudice with "feet of red Alabama clay." Even in today's New York Times Book Review, the esteemed Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, in an otherwise exemplary review, repeats the same themes.

I can't help but wonder how many of the reviewers have simply contrived their headlines to grab our attention in a noisy and cluttered culture, and how many actually believe what they're saying, and are thus perhaps, like mockingbirds, echoing the tendency of the young Scout Finch to rush to judgment on a first hint of evidence and proclaim her dismay at the top of her lungs before paying closer attention to the full story. In my reading of Watchman, Atticus is simply much less of a comic book hero than we might otherwise have made him out to be, and more of a real life agent for good whose stances and actions suggest moral and political questions that we need to think over carefully, as fellow citizens in a world that needs many forms of healing.

In the main narrative of Watchman, it's twenty years after the time covered in the book To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout, using her real name Jean Louise Finch, is visiting her hometown for a two-week period, as she does annually, arriving this time by train from New York City, where she now lives. Atticus is 72 and has been afflicted with severe arthritis. Scout's childhood friend Henry Clinton, or "Hank," newly mentioned in this book, has become an attorney and works for Atticus, helping him personally as well as professionally, almost in the capacity of a son. It quickly becomes clear that he'd like to be a son-in-law, and he keeps asking Jean Louise to marry him. She's unsure, but at the outset edges a little closer to actually considering his oft-made proposal.

Early on in this visit, she sees a racist pamphlet called "The Black Plague" in a stack of her father's books and learns from her aunt Alexandra that it belongs to Atticus. Zandra says, "There are a lot of truths in that book." Scout's shocked and can hardly believe what she's hearing. She later learns that Hank and Atticus are going to a meeting down at the courthouse, and finds out that it's a Maycomb County Citizens' Council. The Supreme Court has just passed down their famous edict on school integration, in 1954, and the NAACP has become active throughout the South. Scout has read about southern Citizens' Councils and is alarmed. She follows Atticus and Hank to the meeting and sneaks up into the balcony of the courthouse to watch, where as a child she viewed her father as he acted on the principles that she has always admired and held dear. This time, Atticus is in a room full of local businessmen and community leaders, and it's apparently his job to introduce their speaker of the day, whom he simply names and says needs no introduction. The man, Grady O'Hanlon, is a virulent segregationist demagogue who goes from town to town addressing such meetings of local white men for the purpose of whipping up negative sentiments against their African-American fellow citizens, as well as against the meddling federal government and the trouble-making NAACP.

Scout is stunned and sickened to see her father sitting there listening to racist venom. She runs out in a rage of shock and disappointment at both her father and Henry. She decides to leave town immediately. But first, she goes to see her beloved uncle Jack, a medical doctor, eccentric and erudite community intellectual, and the brother of Atticus, to find out what in the world is going on. She tells him in disbelief that she's just seen her father and Hank at the meeting, and Jack laughs loudly, before calming into mere chuckles. He's witnessed Scout leap to crazy conclusions many times before, just like current crop of book reviewers, and can surely see what's coming. She's angered even more at his laughter. He then enigmatically leads her through a number of esoteric historical references to try to get her to understand that contemporary social and political issues are just as complex as those that underlay The War Between the States a hundred years prior, and still incorporate most of them, which haven't gone away. Southerners in agricultural areas like theirs, he hints, tend to be fiercely independent. They don't want distant government officials handing down dictates concerning situations they don't fully understand. He also explains to Scout that she'd be "making a bad mistake" if she thought her father was dedicated to keeping black people "in their place." He doesn't hate any race or any people.

According to Jack, not even 5% of Southerners at the time of The War Between the States had even seen a slave, and he suggests that the remaining 95% of the population didn't for a second go off to battle or send their sons into it for the sake of a few wealthy slave owners. His suggestion is rather that Southerners firmly believe political decisions should be made locally whenever possible. When there's a failure at the most local level, then matters can be kicked up to a broader context, perhaps to the county or state. The federal government is then the last resort of all. He quotes a British theorist to the effect that government of any kind exists to prevent crime, preserve contracts, and provide for a common defense, which is vague enough, he points out, to allow for a lot of freedom. He's trying to convince Jean Louise that her father is on the local Citizen's Council not because he's a racist, or is trying to block progress in citizenship for any of their neighbors, whatever their color, but simply to help the community think through the issues that impinge on them, and discern how to steer safely ahead as well as possible. Jean Louise is not calmed or convinced by any of this - as is her way.

After some long flashback passages to Scout's teen years, the young adult Jean Louise confronts Henry with her anger and concerns (228 ff). She wants to know what he and Atticus were doing at the Council meeting where such a racist hate-monger got a hearing. Henry says "We have to do a lot of things we don't want to do, Jean Louise." He claims that the only purpose of the Council is to be "a protest" against the Supreme Court's action from on high, and to offer "a sort of warning," in his own ill-chosen words, that social change, however necessary, should not be undertaken in too much of a hurry. But his words could easily be misunderstood, and probably are by Scout, as well as by many readers. He then asks if she knew that Atticus had long ago joined the Ku Klux Klan, early in their existence as a business men's group - before there was any physical intimidation or violence, he's quick to add, and simply for the purpose of finding out who they were "behind the masks" and how they operated, in case he were ever to have to intervene to stop any such actions. She's immediately even more disgusted and rhetorically pretends not to be surprised, at this point, concerning anything her father might have done.

Henry tries to defend Atticus and himself by pointing out that you can't always judge a man's intentions, or motives, by his outward actions. He says, "A man can be boiling inside, but he knows a mild answer works better than showing his rage. A man can condemn his enemies, but it's wiser to know them." He's implicitly, of course, asking Scout to try to do the same in the situation. And, obviously, he intimates here that the racist bigots and potentially violent among the community are indeed enemies in his eyes as well as those of Atticus, and not at all kindred spirits, or comrades in arms.

Henry then points out to Jean Louise that a man has to find the best way to live among his neighbors, so that, long term, he can be of service to them - and that may involve guiding them to bette paths. She was always prone to fight, and still is. He believes that he owes himself and his community the duty of tamping down belligerence and finding other ways to deal with problems. He suggests that her privileged background as a Finch may blind her from understanding how important it is for someone like him, who has had to work hard for everything in his life, to act judiciously and prudently, while yet still addressing things that need to be changed and managed. Scout calls him a coward and a hypocrite for having anything to do with the Maycomb Citizens' Council.

As I read this passage, I could almost imagine Hank envisioning the more troubled members of their community and saying, "Listen, Jean Louise: If you're trying to train a nervous, worked-up horse, and he's walking in the wrong direction, the quickest thing might be to just yell at him and hit him in the head. But that would instantly make things worse. You have to walk beside him for a while, try to calm him down and gain his trust, and then you can perhaps effectively guide him in the right direction. Do you understand?" In other words, while Scout always wants immediate confrontation, Hank prefers constructive engagement. And yet, as we know, that can shade dangerously into accommodationist appeasement. And reasonable, good people can differ on it as a proper path.

Human nature is malleable. People tend to become like the people they're around. And that goes in either direction. The corrupt can perhaps be made better by divergent companionship, or the good made worse by it. It can be dangerous to walk alongside a nervous horse who's going in the wrong direction. And, meanwhile, a slow and gentle approach toward corrective action certainly allows things to continue on longer in the wrong direction, which is sometimes necessary, but on other occasions can take you over the edge of a cliff. Hank and Atticus have judged that, in the circumstances, it's their best course.

Atticus walks up and overhears Jean Louise calling Hank a hypocrite. He sends the younger man off on an errand and gives Scout a chance to confront him directly and say what's on her mind. She takes the opportunity to lay into him with almost every invective, insult, and curse she can muster. He's apparently not angered, and shows no offense, letting the words bounce off without evident effect, except to reveal to him what exactly is on her mind and heart. And then he seeks to engage her in reasoning through the issues, as he sees them. As he asks her views on the Supreme Court's recent decision and hears her reaction, he's able to point out to her that she's more of a states' rights advocate than he is, and that, by contrast, he looks like "a Roosevelt Liberal." He reveals what's focally at stake for him in all the issues whirling about: that the constitution of the United States is greater than any court, and should never be abrogated by it. He suggests that he and the wholly non-racist Scout find themselves "believing the very same things" on the biggest issues and holding valuable the same ultimate ends, while simply not yet agreeing as to the means that might be best to achieve those ends.

Atticus has always seemed to believe in the legal and spiritual equality of all, but he also seems just as clearly to be resisting a federal, top-down approach to enforcing ideal that in their currently difficult situation, which is a tactic that, in his view, moves both too fast and in an unfortunate way in pursuit of that end. He believes that it will cause needless trouble in their agrarian South, trouble that could be avoided in a different pursuit of the same end. But he goes on to say some things in his conversation with Jean Louise that at first glance do sound outrageously racist to our modern ears. When I sat and read them, they gave me pause. I then asked myself not how Atticus could be defended from the charge that he's racist, as his words could seem to imply, but how the author, Harper Lee, might defend him, or explain him, in another way. After all, Atticus is modeled on her father, a man she did love and admire. As I took in these few most startling passages, I was reminded of a graduate seminar at Yale long ago where I was first introduced to a hermeneutical, or interpretive, rule often known as "The Principle of Charity": We should interpret the confusing in terms of the clear, and the unknown in terms of the known, seeking to understand the anomalous in terms of the more pervasive, and then give as charitable a reading as we can to any potentially rare passages that seem on the surface to contradict, or stand in tension with, more common passages or perspectives in the same text. It's something we naturally do when we interpret what people say in terms of what we already know of their character, personality, and underlying views.

So what are the shocking passages? It almost pains me to repeat them. Jean Louise is in a hurry for justice to prevail. Atticus says, "Have you ever considered that you can't have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?" She's not impressed. He says, "You realize that our Negro population is backward, don't you? You will concede that?" (242) He then says, "You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?" And now we're in deep.

On a charitable reading, Atticus should not be too quickly understood as commenting here on an entire race, and making some point about an essential limitation inherent to that race, but rather as speaking only about, in his words, "the vast majority" of the members of that race who were living, at that particular time, in the specific part of American that was the rural South around the location where their conversation was taking place. He seems to be articulating the view that it just won't work to try to impose full equality of citizenship too quickly, and from above, in a way that may create unanticipated problems. He goes on to articulate the view he thinks of as "Jeffersonian" that the full rights of democratic citizenship are properly taken up by people who have developed themselves into fully and appropriately "responsible" citizens, with the overall knowledge and skills requisite for the rigors of active, participative self governance. (244) He seems to think, deep down, that this is possible for any normal human being, for any member of any race who is of sound mind, but also to judge that, in their day, the cart was being put in front of the horse, and the entire panoply of citizenship was being imposed on a segment of their local population who had not yet been fully enough prepared for its burdens. The lack of preparation was certainly not their own fault, but that of the majority white citizens who had kept them oppressed and limited in their educational opportunities. And certainly, by his own "Jeffersonian" standards articulated here, many of his fellow white men and women would not qualify for the same full responsibilities and privileges of mature citizenship. But that isn't addressed in the scope of the book, or of these discussions. I would guess that if he were confronted with such issues, Atticus would remind us that we have to start from where we are, and move forward in as healthy and non-damaging a way as we can. And this, of course, has been a procedural preference that we've forgotten, to our great detriment, in our recent efforts to impose democratic governance, top-down, in various other parts of the world where we have too often acted without such a consideration of preparation or timing. In our proper view that a democratic society can be a condition for the flourishing of any human beings, we easily forget the arduous slog of cultivation and preparation that it may take to get there. Not everything good can be done in an instant. That seems to be what Atticus is suggesting. Of course, for all the wisdom of this viewpoint, any passive perpetuation of injustice is itself a wrong that should always be righted as expeditiously as is possible.

Jean Louise pushes back again, and Atticus makes what may be the worst remark yet: "Then let's put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?" (245) You can almost hear her hostility when Scout replies, "They're people, aren't they? We were quite willing to import them when they made money for us." He responds, and we truly do cringe when we hear him say the words, "Do you want your children going to a school that's been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?"

And it gets worse. He goes on: "What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I'll tell you. There'd be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don't know how to run 'em?" - as if that hadn't then and hasn't now been going on far too much, in any case. And let me quote one more remark, that seems to take us to our final nadir: "Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you've seen it all your life. They've made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they're far from it yet."

As a reader, you want to say, "Really? Really, Atticus? I mean: Seriously? Is that what you'd actually say? Or is that just what a young Harper Lee put into your mouth before properly editing it all, and giving you a bit more of a chance not to sound so bad to us future readers?

After we get over our heebie-jeebies and proper shuddering, we should once again revert to the Principle of Charity and see if it can survive for a minute in this heated environment.

First, what about the carload comment that makes us cringe? Can we save Atticus from that one? What's he saying, if not something that's viciously prejudicial? Well, let's try this: Would Frenchmen or Irishmen, or Swedes or Germans want Southern Alabama white people suddenly dumped by the carload into their "schools and churches and theaters?" Acting like Southern Alabama white people? Maybe not - and this would be so quite apart from any racial perspectives. Diversity is a truly great and magnificent thing when done right. It can be a very good thing even when done wrong. But done terribly, it can be a harmful and disruptive situation - at least, initially. And that seems to be the point Atticus is trying to make, throughout - not that there's anything inherently inferior about black people in general, or even regarding those of his time and place, but that preparation and pace may be needed, in his time, to work up to a great situation, unlike the instant "solutions" he takes others to be proposing to such longstanding ills. The same interpretive slant can be put on his remark about a school that's been "dragged down to accommodate Negro children." If this is really the Atticus we know from Mockingbird, then he can't be judging an entire race in an inherently negative way here, can he? That's too out of step with the respect he shows all of his fellow men, women, and children. He, again, could be issuing cautionary words about the pace of social change, and the nature of its implementation.

I grew up in the 1950s in a quietly segregated Durham, North Carolina. I remember when the schools were first integrated. It seemed natural to me, and not a problem at all. In high school, one of my three best friends was black. And yet my mother worried about how that might anger "some people in town." I thought, "What business is it of theirs?" And I didn't let her worry affect me. Later on, I realized some of the struggles that my black friends and classmates had faced when they left underfunded, neglected schools in their own neighborhoods, with old books and underpaid teachers, to come to the best schools in town, where I wished they had been from the start. But they hadn't been there. And when integration occurred at a fifth grade level, or a seventh grade level, or a tenth, some of the new students in my school struggled in ways they shouldn't have had to. I later on thought: Why didn't they start by integrating first grade, when we were all more on a roughly equal footing, and let those kids rise into an integrated second grade, and so on, up the line? Yes, it would have taken too long. But no kids would have been challenged to blend in and perform well, despite poor academic backgrounds, and with all the problems that entailed. I suppose there was really no way to achieve justice quickly and perfectly.

It's easy to reflect on these things enough to see what Atticus, in his time and place, might have had in mind, however better it could have been said, and perhaps would have been, given a few more years of maturity on the part of the young author constructing his sentences, and with the benefit of an sensitive editorial guiding hand. Atticus wanted Scout to understand that good intentions don't always guarantee their intended results. And even the best of intentions, with poor planning, can result in unanticipated problems. In my experience, integration didn't at all "drag down" the standards of any schools to accommodate the lesser prepared, but rather these institutions tended to hold tightly to their standards, and thereby created unnecessary suffering for any students previously unacquainted with such relatively rigorous ideals.

In a flashback to her teen years earlier in the book, Scout has gone through a miserable time due to misunderstanding the facts of life having to do with conception and pregnancy. She's started having her period, and a boy kisses her with his tongue for the first time. She then overhears some older girls talking and jumps to the wrong conclusion that such kissing creates pregnancy, and that she's now going to have a baby outside marriage and shame the family. When the full biological story is later explained by the great character and black maid Calpurnia, Scout protests and asks why she hadn't been told all this earlier. Cal says, "Mr. Finch said wait awhile till you got used to the idea" (of being a woman and having periods). She adds, "but we didn't count on you finding out so quick and so wrong, Miss Scout." Atticus is a deliberate, patient, cautious man with good will in his heart. He wanted to wait to tell Scout the full "facts of life." And, as it turned out, he was wrong to do so. Not knowing the truth allowed her to panic in belief of a falsehood. But that didn't impugn his character, or his motives. It just showed a normal lack of infallibility. And it foreshadowed his "slow and steady" approach to racial equality - right or wrong.

He's tried to calmly reason with Jean Louise on the Council issue as well as the bigger issues they face, but she'll have none of this dithering. She verbally hits him with all she's got, in her disgust and fury. And the narrator tells us, "Her wave of invective had crashed over him and still he sat there. He had declined to be angry." (249) Atticus has amazing self control. He's a true stoic. We later learn from Uncle Jack that he was experiencing all of Scout's rage and hostility as perhaps a necessary stage for her to become her own person, and truly possess her own principles, distinct from whether they were also his or not. She had nearly worshipped him, throughout her life, and needed a moral center and separateness she had never fully experienced. She was like an angry horse, and he was walking along side her as she raged, again, in hopes that he could eventually gain her understanding and gently show her his way.

But she runs off and prepares to leave town, in a frenzy of shock, betrayal and immense anger at everyone. And then Uncle Jack arrives at the house as she prepares to go. He tries to talk to her and reaps only the whirlwind of her disparagement and pique. And then, dear reader, we get quite a surprise. Only a couple of really hard smacks in the face from her sweet elderly uncle can stun her into listening. Oh, he quickly tends to her bleeding mouth, medically, and gives her whisky to numb the pain and open her mind, while explaining that she's the bigot, not Atticus. He also has some pretty harsh words for people who are, in fact, white supremacists. And she realizes she was wrong.

When she later reconciles with her father, she says, "I called you some pretty grim things." He answers, "I can take anything anybody calls me so long as it's not true." (277) And that seems to be the case for the old lawyer. I don't even think he'd go to the trouble, were he alive, and of course, real, to reply to all the book reviewers who have announced to us what a bad man he is.

At the end, Jean Louise says to him, "I think I love you very much." And, if we're willing to look beyond certain appearances, and use sound interpretive principles to understand the intent behind his words, I think we can close this new book with no regrets about how we have admired him in the past as a man struggling to see the just and right eventually prevail out of difficult circumstances. He's not perfect. But we should have known that in the first place. And if he were alive now, I can even imagine his looking around at the social problems we still have and saying to us, "What in the world has taken you so long? You've had more than enough time by now to get the job done!"