Culture

Goodbye And Good Riddance To Atticus Finch And Other ‘White Saviors’

CREDIT: AP/Andrea Mabry

Sign welcoming people to a reading of Go Set A Watchman in the author's home of Monroeville, Alabama.

I’ll admit, I came to Go Set A Watchman with a heavy dose of skepticism. There is its shady backstory, which has been hashed and rehashed, and there is the question that allegedly kept Lee from writing more after Mockingbird: is there anywhere to go but down? And furthermore, did I want to risk tainting my memory of Atticus Finch, who has become a collective symbol of justice?

Let’s get the revelation that launched a thousand headlines out of the way: in Go Set A Watchman, Atticus is racist. The book’s place in the canon is dubious, so if you wish, you can brush aside these revelations. Watchman was written first, so you can treat Mockingbird’s Atticus as the true incarnation of the character. You can argue that Watchman should never have been published. Or, you can argue that Atticus is fictional and thus this whole debate is stupid.

Yet even though he’s fictional, Atticus is a powerful and pervasive symbol. To Kill A Mockingbird is a ubiquitous part of high school English. It’s a cultural touchstone, part of the arsenal that helps us to understand who we are and where we’ve come from. In a testament to Mockingbird’s universal appeal, Go Set A Watchman has generated book sales unheard of since Harry Potter.

If Watchman was published to no fanfare, its revelations wouldn’t matter much. But a published book can’t be unpublished, and a read book can’t be unread. Even having the conversation about whether Mockingbird changes Atticus shows he’s already changed. If it was written by someone other than Harper Lee — like Scarlett, the ill-recieved sequel to another famous southern novel — it wouldn’t matter either. Another thing most people learned in high school is the idea that once a book leaves an author’s hands, they no longer hold any authority over how we should read it, known as ‘death of the author’. How you interpret Atticus, Mockingbird and Watchman is up to you. But the age of the internet has deeply complicated this — to the point where, going back to Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling has built an entire supplemental canon on the internet (Pottermore). Her interviews and tweets are pored over to give readers further insight into a fictional world. Clearly, what the author reveals about their creations still has a hold.

Debates about the role of the author aside, Watchman is worth reading precisely because it complicates Atticus’ legacy. The novel focuses on Jean Louise, familiarly known as Scout Finch, and her relationship with Atticus. As an adult visiting home, Scout has the realization everyone must have growing up: our parents are not perfect. Atticus’ racism — in Watchman, he attends Citizen Council meetings (part of a network of white supremacist organizations that cropped up in reaction to Brown v. Board), reads pamphlets with titles like ‘The Black Plague,’ and defends a black man precisely so the NAACP won’t get the chance to — is the catalyst for this realization. Scout is so horrified at the fall of her paternal god she vomits.

For a manuscript forgotten for nearly 60 years, Go Set A Watchman is surprisingly timely. When Scout confronts her father in the novel’s talky climax, many of Atticus’ arguments regarding states rights — he’s a devout Jeffersonian — are the ones made today. Just swap out the recent legalization of same-sex marriage for desegregation. One month ago, a white supremacist attacked a black church, massacring African Americans. The Voting Rights Act is being dismantled state by state. Black men and women are more likely to be incarcerated or shot by the police and receive stricter punishments. We’re still arguing over the cause of the Civil War. The Confederate flag is finally coming down in South Carolina — and still proudly flies as part of the flag over Mississippi. And people still get mad when a movie about a black movement doesn’t feature a white hero, as in Selma.

The unique thing about Scout’s realizations is that America is having the same realization alongside her. When she reels because “The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “he is a gentleman, in his heart is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly,” we’re reeling too.

The trial scene of To Kill A Mockingbird – the book and movie — inspired generations of lawyers. People name their children, their businesses, and their pets after Atticus Finch (and are regretting it now). For many, Atticus was a paragon, a man who grew up within a structural system of racism and nonetheless stood up to defend a black man to the best of his ability.

Yet when I reread To Kill A Mockingbird as an adult, I found that Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson was not as radical or as uncomplicated as I once thought. It wasn’t about breaking down the system in which a black man’s guilt was assumed while whites were innocent until proven. It wasn’t even about Tom Robinson’s life, really. It was about Atticus’ sense of justice, about preserving the orderly, lawful (and remember, this is the law of Plessy v. Ferguson) world in which he was indisputably on top. When the trial ends, the courtroom — black and white alike — stand to honor him and his sense of justice. He’s a hero. But he’s not an ally.

Atticus Finch — and Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning portrayal of him — is the quintessential white savior. But the trouble with white saviors is that the story is not about those whom they’re saving. It’s about themselves.

At one point, Scout’s uncle says to her about her disillusionment with Atticus: “Jean Louise, I want you to listen carefully. What we’ve talked about today – I want to tell you something and see if you can hook it all together. It’s this: what was incidental to the issue in our War Between the States is incidental to the issue in the war we’re in now, and is incidental to the issue in your own private war. Now think it over and tell me what you think I mean.”

The answer, of course, is slavery and its legacy. However, when Scout has a lightbulb moment at the end of the book, it is not to realize that her uncle was wrong (which with regard to the role of slavery in the civil war, he is). Her realization is that the ‘racism’ aspect in her fight with Atticus is incidental to the fight itself. In Maycomb — as in any white savior story — black people’s struggles are the canvas on which white people experience growth.

Shock over Atticus’ racism surrounds Go Set A Watchman. We’re very attached to our white saviors: Ava DuVerney’s magnificent Selma was criticized for its failure to make President Lyndon B. Johnson a central hero. We’re also fiercely protective of their honor, which is rarely unblemished: yes, LBJ was a major architect of the civil rights act. He was also personally prejudiced and used the n-word — a lot. Our founding fathers owned slaves and spoke of liberty and justice for all.

As Kimberly Ellis says in The Guardian, “The discrepancy is only a source of cognitive dissonance for those who retain the naive notion that white people who engage in progressive actions can escape white, racial socialization and the system of white supremacy.”

The new, more complicated Atticus is just the latest in a line of complex characters. And he was never that perfect — some scholars have been pointing out Atticus’ paternalistic form of racism for years.

Scout reflects in Watchman that the civil rights movement has driven a wedge through her community. She wonders “What turned ordinary men into screaming dirt at the top of their voices, what made her kind of people harden and say ‘nigger’ when the word had never crossed their lips before?” Of course, what Scout doesn’t realize — and hopefully, we now all do — is that the racism was there all along.

In a telling scene meant to establish Atticus’ honor — this book was written before Mockingbird, before Atticus was an established hero — Scout thinks that her father was never “discourteous,” and that he never took the chance to cut in front of black people in the grocery line, as if that alone makes him a paragon of virtue. She fails to see that the very fact that this chance to cut is offered to Atticus as his right shows the racial faults in her community. It should not be extraordinary that Atticus refused a chance to cut in front of his fellow man. What should be extraordinary is that he was offered the chance at all.

To Kill A Mockingbird failed to delve into these more insidious inequalities. Racism in To Kill A Mockingbird was violent, obvious. The landscape in Go Set A Watchman is far more complicated, and far more realistic.

Watchman is an uneven book. It is not the polished work that To Kill A Mockingbird is. But it is an important book because it points out how far America hasn’t come. For a time capsule, it fits appallingly well into our current debates. Getting rid of the idea that racism is always violent and obvious — like that of Bull Connor or Bob Ewell, the hate-filled, racist drunkard of To Kill A Mockingbird — is part of progress. So is complicating the white savior.

At the end of Watchman Scout reflects that she had to “kill” her idealized version of her father to grow up and into her own. Go Set A Watchman shows us it’s time for us to do the same.