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Atticus Finch Is Still a Decent Man

Go_Set_a_WatchmanHere’s the thing about Atticus Finch: above all, he was (is) a decent man. Living up to that standard of decency was precisely what enables him to act, perhaps unwittingly, as a civil rights hero in To Kill A Mockingbird. And the limitations of that standard—what it didn’t (or couldn’t) preclude—is why he is nonetheless able to oppose the Civil Right Movement itself in Go Set A Watchman, which was released today.

This decency is why I doubt that no one who has ever known a decent Southerner, particularly one of Finch’s (or even Harper Lee’s) generation, would be at all surprised to find that both men could be contained in the same individual. The tension between what decency enables us to lift ourselves toward, and what it can at the same time allow us to remain indifferent to—at least where it intersects with race—is the plot of the life-story of just about every Southern liberal or moderate I can imagine (and quite a few conservatives, as well).

When we meet Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, we encounter him through the eyes of a child—and, typically, as little more than children ourselves. From the child’s perspective, decency looks an awful lot like righteousness. So this tension, too, is found in the plots of many—perhaps even most—narratives about parents and children. No one is ever quite who they seem, because who they seem to be depends on how we interpret appearances. Philip Roth writes continually of the discovery that decent and right, or good, or just are not always synonyms. And in that moment of eternal rediscovery, you can come to understand how when his characters rage they are being consumed not by hatred, but by genuine love for their families, or for America—and how the same holds for Faulkner’s Quentin Compson and the South which he, too, did note hate.

(For two takes on Go Set A Watchman that are both longer and more incisive than my own, go read the two Adams: Gopnik and Kirsch.)

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66 thoughts on “Atticus Finch Is Still a Decent Man

  1. What is interesting is that Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first. An editor or agent thought that the flashback sequence was the most interesting part and had her spend two years to rewrite and expand that section. What emerged was To Kill a Mockingbird.

    I wonder if Go Set a Watchman was already a cliche kind of story in the late 1950s or early 60s.

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    • The Gopnik piece I link to actually engages with that — both the question of cliches and that of earlier drafts.

      The spoiler for that essay is that Gopnik thinks this wasn’t written before Mockingbird, but that it appears more likely that this is a revised version of that early novel, from the late 1960s/early 1970s.

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  2. The Philip Roth analogy is interesting because people really misunderstand his relationship with his parents. Most people assume that Philip Roth had a troublesome relationship with his parents because of Portnoy’s Complaint, which people assume is an autobiographical comedy. Most people with a more comprehensive understanding of Roth understands that he adored his parents. I think the real reason Philip Roth wrote the Plot Against America was to demonstrate to the world what he really thought about his parents. Philip Roth’s parents are basically the heroes of the book even and through the eyes of a fictional ten year old Philip Roth we get to know how Philip Roth actually sees his parents.

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    • We’re in really substantial agreement on Roth. To kind of elaborate part of the point I was making above, I think the disillusionment/anger most of his novels present toward parents/families is deeply related toward the disappointment/disillusionment/anger his later novels present about post-WW2 America’s failure to live up to a particular breed of (New Deal, Jewish[?]) liberal ideals. Though I wonder if his frustration with the Left was more from the parent’s perspective than the child’s.

      Anyway, on THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA: it’s by far the sweetest and sincerest of his novels. Not only is it perhaps showing something closer to how he “really” feels about his parents, there’s the final explanation the novel offers for why the Lindberghs became Nazi puppets (which it seems to settle on as most likely, at least in my reading): [SPOILER, I guess, for those who care] — that they were desperate parents doing what any desperate parents would do to save their child’s life.

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      • The Plot Against America gets a lot of detractors because most people evaluate it through the lens of counter factual history rather than literary fiction. As a counter-factual history, the Plot Against America isn’t that great but as a literary novel it works wonders. The novel is more about the parent-child relationship than a military coup in the United States.

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      • @leeesq

        I find that Philip Roth is a novelist that people either love or hate. It seems currently fashionable for younger literary types to dismiss him as a raging sexist pig and nothing else. Notice the debate about whether he deserves the Nobel prize. I have gotten into arguments about whether American Pastoral is a great novel or just a piece of sexist shit.

        His defenders (like myself) see him as belonged to an inbetween stage of American Jewishness. He was too old to be a boomer/hippie/counter-culture hero but too young to fight in WWII. He was old enough to remember active anti-Semitism but too young to remember living in a Lower East Side slum. His upbringing seems to be lower-middle class to middle-class and not the comfortable middle-class and upper-middle class that many post-WWII boomer Jews grew up in.

        I think a lot of younger Jews and partially Jewish Americans are among the first generations of Jews to grow up without experiencing too much anti-Semitism. By contrast, I’ve known Boomer Jews who could talk about losing jobs because of their Jewishness. We would find it inconceivable today that Feynman could write something about not getting into Columbia because the quota was filled so he had to go to M.I.T.

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  3. I teach TKaMB in my 8th grade class, but I must say, I have been uninspired to read this. I know that I really should before the start of the school year, but there is a stack of worthy books sitting on my bed stand….

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  4. When I think of To Kill a Mockingbird, the first thing I think of is the previous title of the book:

    “A Black person can only be saved by a Southern White Man (or Woman, if she is the author)”.

    But, then, he isn’t saved, is he? But, oh that wonderful White Man – Atticus Finch! And Harper Lee, what a great author!

    —-

    I think my perception of this book is very different from all of yours. This is a book that makes Whites feel better about themselves, and makes Blacks feel worse about themselves.

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      • Ummmmm, no. It’s actually a fairly common reading.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Kill_a_Mockingbird#Social_commentary_and_challenges

        With a shift of attitudes about race in the 1970s, To Kill a Mockingbird faced challenges of a different sort: the treatment of racism in Maycomb was not condemned harshly enough. This has led to disparate perceptions that the novel has a generally positive impact on race relations for white readers, but a more ambiguous reception by black readers. In one high-profile case outside the U.S., school districts in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia attempted to have the book removed from standard teaching curricula in the 1990s,[note 3] stating:

        The terminology in this novel subjects students to humiliating experiences that rob them of their self-respect and the respect of their peers. The word ‘Nigger’ is used 48 times [in] the novel … We believe that the English Language Arts curriculum in Nova Scotia must enable all students to feel comfortable with ideas, feelings and experiences presented without fear of humiliation … To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly a book that no longer meets these goals and therefore must no longer be used for classroom instruction.[112]

        Furthermore, despite the novel’s thematic focus on racial injustice, its black characters are not fully examined.[75] In its use of racial epithets, stereotyped depictions of superstitious blacks, and Calpurnia, who to some critics is an updated version of the “contented slave” motif and to others simply unexplored, the book is viewed as marginalizing black characters.[113][114] One writer asserts that the use of Scout’s narration serves as a convenient mechanism for readers to be innocent and detached from the racial conflict. Scout’s voice “functions as the not-me which allows the rest of us—black and white, male and female—to find our relative position in society”.[75] A teaching guide for the novel published by The English Journal cautions, “what seems wonderful or powerful to one group of students may seem degrading to another”.[115] A Canadian language arts consultant found that the novel resonated well with white students, but that black students found it “demoralizing”.[116] Another criticism, articulated by Michael Lind, is that the novel indulges in classist stereotyping and demonization of poor rural “white trash”.[117]

        The novel is cited as a factor in the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, however, in that it “arrived at the right moment to help the South and the nation grapple with the racial tensions (of) the accelerating civil rights movement”.[118] Its publication is so closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement that many studies of the book and biographies of Harper Lee include descriptions of important moments in the movement, despite the fact that she had no direct involvement in any of them.[119][120][121] Civil Rights leader Andrew Young comments that part of the book’s effectiveness is that it “inspires hope in the midst of chaos and confusion” and by using racial epithets portrays the reality of the times in which it was set. Young views the novel as “an act of humanity” in showing the possibility of people rising above their prejudices.[122] Alabama author Mark Childress compares it to the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that is popularly implicated in starting the U.S. Civil War. Childress states the novel “gives white Southerners a way to understand the racism that they’ve been brought up with and to find another way. And most white people in the South were good people. Most white people in the South were not throwing bombs and causing havoc … I think the book really helped them come to understand what was wrong with the system in the way that any number of treatises could never do, because it was popular art, because it was told from a child’s point of view.” [123]

        Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Birmingham civil rights campaign, asserts that To Kill a Mockingbird condemns racism instead of racists, and states that every child in the South has moments of racial cognitive dissonance when they are faced with the harsh reality of inequality. This feeling causes them to question the beliefs with which they have been raised, which for many children is what the novel does. McWhorter writes of Lee, “for a white person from the South to write a book like this in the late 1950s is really unusual—by its very existence an act of protest.”[124][note 4] Author James McBride calls Lee brilliant but stops short of calling her brave: “I think by calling Harper Lee brave you kind of absolve yourself of your own racism … She certainly set the standards in terms of how these issues need to be discussed, but in many ways I feel … the moral bar’s been lowered. And that’s really distressing. We need a thousand Atticus Finches.” McBride, however, defends the book’s sentimentality, and the way Lee approaches the story with “honesty and integrity”.[125]

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        • My rejoinder is that even though To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about racial injustice, it is also an autobiographical novel about a white girl growing up in the Great Depression South and her relationship with her father. This means that many of the social attitudes that white people in the South had towards African-Americans are going to be present and that the novel is going to reflect the mores of white Southern society to shine through. Getting angry at the presence of the N-word in To Kill a Mocking Bird is like being filed with rage at Jew-hating characters spewing Jew hatred in novel about anti-Semitism like Malamud’s The Fixer.

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              • Well, for me personally, it is a difficult inclusion. I like Mr. Clemens quite a bit. Yet, he is grouped with the others. As I wrote below to Jaybird:

                Ultimately, these books (Harper, Twain, Stowe, Griffin, et al) are written by white people trying to tell us important things about race. This is my complaint – that only a White Person can save a Black Person. It’s the same as mansplaining in my book. It’s not that they don’t have important things to say, it’s that America only trusts White Men (with a few exceptions) as the means of Teaching Important Things.

                I was careful to include Twain immediately after the subject author (incorrectly written as Harper, when it should have been Lee. Alas, I am me.). If there is any extra judiciousness afforded Mr. Clemens, perhaps it is his astute awareness of his own involvement and benefit from these discussions. I’ll take self-awareness. He wrote more than just the one book, as well, so it’s not a really balanced comparison. Calculus and Arithmetic. She doesn’t have the Sum over Histories, I suppose.

                Hey, I’m biased. Just not as bad as you all. ;-)

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                • Huck doesn’t save Jim, other than by not turning him in. In fact, at the end of the book, he and Tom actively get in Jim’s way, though it turns out Jim was free all along; actually, if we want to make any sense out of the story, we should skip everything from when Huck meets Aunt Sally. If anything, Jim saves Huck, though not in any Magic Black Man sense; just by being a decent person and a good friend, he leads Huck to reject the racism he grew up with.

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                  • Yes, I think that is a good reading. I’ve always felt that Huck and Jim save each other, if there’s any saving going on. Tom mostly works to complicate things in the ways he thinks adults complicate things.

                    My issue is that, as good as this story is, it’s written by a white man to try to tell us something about being a black man. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But, as a country, why don’t we celebrate black voices as loud as we do the white ones? Why do we need a white man or white woman to tell us how it is to be black?

                    —-

                    David Brooks, our national disgrace, wrote a column that boggles the mind about one of our new black voices – TNC (find it yourself, no link from me). We’re still holding these voices down, as a country. Everyone is guilty.

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                    • The reason to read Twain isn’t tell black people how it was to be black. The reason to read Twain is due to his outstanding contribution to American literature. All of what came after him owes him a due. If i remember correctly there are black authors who say exactly that. In terms of what to learn about race we won’t learn about what black people thought from Twain and he wasn’t even likely a representative American from his time.

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                      • I agree, greginak. However, he is also revered for what he has to say about race, no?

                        In my opinion, the reason to read Twain is because he is Twain. Nobody like him. One of my favorite writers. He does have some good things to say, even or especially about race. That’s great. Let’s find those black voices to praise, too.

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                      • Well, there’s a reason for the choice that Huck makes, isn’t there? And, there’s a reason for the choices that Jim makes, too. But, how hard it is for many to see those same things that Huck sees.

                        But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

                        How many would say “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” and tear up the paper?

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    • This is a take about the book that I hadn’t encountered before (though, granted, I’ve not spent much time with the book since high school).

      And now I’m wondering what a book that worked would look like.

      Would it make black people feel better about themselves and white people feel worse? Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted?

      What would that look like?

      The first thought is something like a mixture of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Groundhog Day.

      Set the book in the same setting but open with “When Atticus Finch woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed into a Negro.”

      And take it from there. Day one, he walks out of his hut with his head held high looking to resolve this problem. Dies, one way or another.

      Wake up again. Play the day again.

      Kill him for a week. Kill him for a month. Demonstrate that acting like Atticus Finch with black skin will result in his death.

      So, through trial and error, he is trained to walk around town or to have conversations or to interact with others. Along the way, show small moments of transcendent beauty with some small interactions with other Black folks. A meal, a story, a prayer, a song (watch out, this needs to be handled delicately… can’t just be magical negroes walking around giving our protagonist life lessons).

      Then how to end it (after 10,000 years of Day 1)? Wake up the next day? White skin or black skin? If black skin, do it again and end with the realization that he has to get through another 10,000 years of Day 2? If white skin, going out and realizing that everyone has internalized the lessons that it took him 10,000 years to learn? A split second of eye contact in a storefront window or mirror somewhere tells him that everyone he encounters is going through what he went through? End it like The Lady and the Tiger?

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      • A little like The Wire, except with more of an emphasis on “cultural restrictions” rather than organizational game theory. “Stand By Me” does a decent job talking about cultural restrictions, without coming out and outright speechifying about the whole lot.

        Did you like Depression Quest?

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        • I never played Depression Quest.

          I thought that The Wire did good job of saying “the system itself is so screwed up that it’s no use feeling bad about it”.

          Not because I’ve seen it, mind. But because of the gushing praise that it has received from every single corner. It make make comfortable the afflicted… but it also seems to make comfortable the comfortable.

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          • You should watch it now, they’re finally releasing it in HD.

            And it’s not saying that the system is so screwed up that…
            It does a good job of showing “The Game”… and of course,
            where there’s money and demand, you’ve got business.
            (to change the rules on sticky illegal drugs, it does need to be large scale).

            But the game can be played on the quiet, or it can be played loud and proud.
            And the wire does a good job of showing how both are reacted to by the rest of society…

            (I may see this differently, as I know people… in “law enforcement”).

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      • I can certainly see that viewpoint, and I don’t blame anyone for saying “that’s a book for white people”.

        I also don’t think that *necessarily* negates the artistry or quality of the story. It just makes it a story perhaps best suited to a particular audience.

        Let’s say there was a novel about a Westerner who goes to a religiously-repressive Middle Eastern country; while there, they are falsely-accused of corrupting/defiling a local.

        Maybe this local (or someone else) made a false accusation; maybe the Westerner and the local were having a consensual love affair – doesn’t matter, the Westerner (and maybe the local, depending) is going to be stoned in the public square, next week.

        A local attorney takes the case to defend the Westerner, against great opposition from his countrymen and co-religionists. Despite the attorney’s best efforts, the Westerner is killed anyway, disillusioning the lawyer (and/or the narrator of the story).

        Even if the Westerners in this story are thinly-drawn in comparison to heroic Local Lawyer, and there are repeated epithets about the godless and decadent Westerners from the local characters, is this a worthless story, or one which should make Westerners feel bad?

        Or is it just a story that people from a particular culture still might want (or need) to hear?

        It’s been many years since I read Mockingbird, but I certainly recall it being a book about fostering empathy and resisting Othering (Scout finally realizing that Boo was not the monster the kids had imagined him to be), and about standing up for the right thing, even against peer pressure and hopeless odds and stacked systems.

        I can certainly understand, for various reasons, the book failing to resonate with black people.

        But I feel the best response to that is not so much to tear Mockingbird down for what it is not; but instead to point to (or create) a story that better tells the story you feel is being left untold by it.

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      • And now I’m wondering what a book that worked would look like.

        Would it make black people feel better about themselves and white people feel worse? Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted?

        I like your ideas.

        I often wonder what story, book, film, art could make a statement about race that would reach all races in the same, or very similar, way. I have ideas, but, firstly, I have no way of really knowing how a story will hit another person, let alone another race, in spite of my occasional certainty otherwise. Secondly, I think that many (not all) of these stories are not really about race. They are about allowing people to feel less guilty – “I feel just like Atticus Finch – I’m no racist!”.

        Ultimately, these books (Harper, Twain, Stowe, Griffin, et al) are written by white people trying to tell us important things about race. This is my complaint – that only a White Person can save a Black Person. It’s the same as mansplaining in my book. It’s not that they don’t have important things to say, it’s that America only trusts White Men (with a few exceptions) as the means of Teaching Important Things.

        I really like The Shawshank Redemption, and I think the redemption is really about Red. But, the film still bothers me because there is so much that points to White People as the source of Red’s redemption and ultimate freedom (Andy, Brooks, etc.).

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        • I really like The Shawshank Redemption, and I think the redemption is really about Red. But, the film still bothers me because there is so much that points to White People as the source of Red’s redemption and ultimate freedom (Andy, Brooks, etc.).

          One of my pet theories about Sahwshank is that Andy DuFresne is meant to be something like Christ, descending into the world of sinners and to show them the way to escape their own hell, as Christ supposedly “harrowed” hell after his crucifiction, with the harrowing itself being an analogy to his supposed role in coming to earth to redeem its inhabitants. Andy’s sin is “original” to himself: he didn’t kill his wife, but because of his own character he drove her into a situation where she was killed by another, just as Christ supposedly was without sin but contained in himself the human propensity for sin. (I assume this is a highly contested theological point and I’m sure I’m messing it up somehow.) Along the way, Andy performs several “miracles”: he introduces the prisoners to opera; he smites the evil spirits that rule the prison (the “sisters” and eventually the warden); he turns hard labor into wine beer; he teaches the illiterate to read….

          ….and he saves Red. I don’t think it’s wrong to read the story as the white guy coming to prison to save the black guy and to note the implicit argument that’s there. I think that’s a function of the fact of race and racism in our society, and all my theorizing about the “harrowing of hell” analogy can’t undo that.

          By the way, I know others have said it, but it’s nice to see you around here again.

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          • “that reaches all races the same” – this is kind of what I was trying to get at in my comment above (which I appear to have misthreaded as a reply to instead of ) – I am not sure such a thing is possible, or even desirable (since some people may need to hear certain messages more loudly/clearly than others).

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            • I am not sure such a thing is possible, or even desirable (since some people may need to hear certain messages more loudly/clearly than others).

              Yes, precisely. This is where I end up when thinking about it.

              Further, I think that for some parts of a story, one group of people would hear it in one way while another group would hear the exact OPPOSITE way. Finally, one of the groups that would be most important to reach would be those least likely to change (or even listen), or most set in their ways. Reaching that group is a very different proposition. Tote baggers would be easy. It’s the Rollin’ Coal, Confederate Flag waving ones that would be slightly more difficult.

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