Jesse Kornbluth considers Harper Lee’s new book “Go Set a Watchman”, and interprets new meanings from “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Atticus Finch killed a mockingbird.
“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?” he asks in “Go Set a Watchman.” “Do you want them in our world?”
He surely doesn’t: “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”
Atticus Finch, bigot? Atticus Finch, racist?
In “Go Set a Watchman,” the novel Harper Lee wrote two years before she wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus is light years from the saint of “Mockingbird.” And that has readers who have cherished “To Kill a Mockingbird” upset. Worse, really. More like unhinged.
Ever since Michiko Kakutani dropped the bombshell news about Atticus in her New York Times review of “Watchman,” I’ve followed this wave of disbelief with interest.
I read the first chapter of “Watchman” as soon as it was online. I knew it was unedited, written by a 25-year-old, and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. I was right to. The language is flat. There’s a ton of exposition. It reads very much like the book of a young writer in the mid ‘50s. [To buy the book of “Go Set a Watchman” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the Audible audiobook, click here.]
You can’t talk about “Watchman” without talking about “Mockingbird.” In the national imagination, they’re fused, in much the same way that “Mockingbird” and the movie are fused. And then there’s the deeper fusion: Gregory Peck and Atticus Finch.
Pretty much everyone names “Mockingbird” as their favorite book. Often, I think, they lie. They haven’t read the book. They have seen the movie. And they substitute the movie for the book, because we are a movie culture, not a book culture, and the movie is… well, it ranks #10 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films. As for Gregory Peck, he won more than an Oscar. He won immortality; in 2003, the AFI named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. For Atticus to be revealed as a bigot is like learning that Santa hates kids or Jesus was a child molester.
What’s most interesting about the distress over “Watchman” is that it forces us to look again at “Mockingbird,” a book we all studied in the 8th or 9th grade and were taught to admire. Which is why I suggest, instead of reading “Watchman,” why not re-read “Mockingbird” and see if it’s the book you thought it was. [To buy the paperback, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
I got this idea after reading through a thicket of reader comments. I got tired of the questions about Harper Lee — did she want this publication? or is she gaga? — and the horror about Atticus. These, from the Times, frame the question that I pose to you:
What so many of us find so shocking and uncomfortable is that the review of “Watchman” makes us consider how childish our own visions may have been. And a little foolish not to have realized that before. That’s uncomfortable, to be sure. But I also say it’s very good.
I never understood how Atticus Finch was so lionized after ‘Mockingbird.’ He did just as the community expected and wanted. He knew from the beginning that his defense of Tom was doomed, but that the town needed a stand-up guy for Tom’s defense so that it could feel justified in convicting an innocent man. Atticus wasn’t a paragon of virtue in ‘Mockingbird.’ He helped the town pretend that justice was served. I have never understood all these lawyers down here who want to emulate him, except that perhaps they wanted to play his role, as reluctant administrator of a deeply flawed social system, where the three groups — blacks, upper class whites and lower class whites (like Tom’s accuser) — had no trust for each other, but in any conflict hewed close to their racial allegiances, meaning blacks always lost.
I taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” at least five times in my career as a teacher. When I read the story as an adult, I saw how trite and outdated the message was, and recognized in it the sort of latent, quiet racism that leads white people to say things like, “I don’t see color.” I found it hard to suspend my disbelief that Maycomb didn’t really have a KKK, especially after being born in the Mobile, Alabama of the 1970s. It became hard and harder for me to want to teach the book to 14-year-olds, as they were really only ready to see themselves as enlightened, post-racial individuals, though they were adamant that black people were naturally better dancers than white people. After years of wrestling with these insights, I finally gave up on teaching it. I have come to believe that its place in the curriculum is at the university level as an artifact of mid-twentieth-century liberal naivete, and that high school students are better off learning about racial attitudes from other texts. It does not surprise me at all that the Atticus of this new book expresses racist attitudes, neither does it seem inconsistent to me. Atticus plays a paternalistic role in TKAM, and the “kindnesses” that Maycomb extends to its black citizens in that book are also paternalistic. I can only hope that the publication of this book will put its predecessor in its rightful place in American life.
Read “Watchmen?” Sure. But first do some apparently overdue homework and re-read “Mockingbird.”
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