Like many people, I first read To Kill Mockingbird in a high school English class. At the beginning of each period, we’d gather our desks into a circle, the legs of our chairs groaning against the classroom floor. We’d tuck our pencils into the spiral rings of our notebooks and stare blankly at each other until our teacher asked the question that finally provoked some semblance of discussion from us. Questions like:
Atticus always reminds Scout and Jem to try walking in other people’s shoes before judging them. In what ways do Atticus, Scout, and Jem have to walk in others’ shoes—to show compassion and empathy—throughout the book?
What does Atticus mean when he tells Scout that “most people are [nice]…when you finally see them”? How is Atticus able to see the good in all people despite everything that he endures?
Isn’t Atticus Finch just about the most magnificent, respectable, justice-seeking white savior in all of American literature?
No one ever actually asked this last question, but its sentiment ran throughout most of our conversations. Atticus Finch was a hero. Someone whom we could, and should, aspire to emulate. Someone who stood up against racism and injustice. Someone whom we placed on our highest moral pedestal.
I adored Atticus Finch so much that I almost named one of my children after him.
Nonetheless, I was initially skeptical about reading Harper Lee’s latest book, Go Set a Watchman. The murky story behind the manuscript’s discovery and publication—musings about Lee’s declining health, her ability to give consent, her long vow not to publish another novel—just didn’t sit right with me. And when Watchman’s early reviews revealed that Atticus Finch, the much-lauded anti-racist hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a bigoted, Klan meeting-attending segregationist in Watchman, I was all but ready to disavow the book.
Upon more careful consideration, however, I wondered if there weren’t something morally compelling about this new literary development. Maybe, I thought, there was some deep philosophical value in these new facets of Finch’s character: facets that highlight his imperfections and complicate his commitment to justice. Facets that would make great classroom discussion fodder for a new generation of readers. And so I ordered a copy of the book and prepared to deepen my understanding of the great Atticus Finch. I even decided to read Watchman alongside Mockingbird, alternating between chapters from each book so that I could measure the distance between the Atticus of Mockingbird and the Atticus of Watchman.
This act of side-by-side reading didn’t merely add new depth to Atticus’s character. It distorted the Atticus that I once knew. The Atticus I once knew—the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird—dismisses the Ku Klux Klan. He treats Calpurnia, the Finch family’s black maid and caretaker, with kindness. He wages a masterful courtroom defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, despite ridicule and threats of violence from his community.
The Atticus I once knew was not a racist.
Nonetheless, before I finished either book, I began to realize that the Atticus I once knew probably didn’t ever exist. Like many readers, I once viewed Atticus through the naïve, nostalgic eyes of Mockingbird’s narrator and Atticus’s daughter, Scout. Scout adores Atticus. She reveres him. She uses his lessons about justice and fairness to provide the foundation for her entire moral framework.
By Watchman, however, Scout is no longer a little girl. In fact, she is no longer “Scout”: she is Jean Louise, her given name, her adult self. And like Jean Louise, I shuddered to learn that Atticus is etched with deep, reprehensible grooves of imperfection. For in Watchman, he owns a pamphlet entitled “The Black Plague.” He attends a segregationist meeting and makes excuses for why it’s important for him to keep an eye on what the group is planning. He bemoans the NAACP and anyone who would claim that black people are equal to white people anywhere outside of a courtroom.
The Atticus of Watchman is indeed imperfect. He is human, he is flawed, and some of his flaws reek of the prison of his own time and place. One might wonder if, in fact, Atticus could have thought or believed otherwise, given that he, the child of slave owners, is a white man in the mid-century South.
Whatever the case, these flaws are present—subtle, though still present—in Mockingbird.
For even in Mockingbird, Atticus refers to the Klan as “a political organization more than anything”—one that, at least in Maycomb, “couldn’t find anybody to scare.” This is not a dismissal based on principles of justice and equality or on a deep-seated concern for black people. It’s more like disdain for the group’s inefficacy.
Moreover, he goes to enormous lengths to defend the truly heinous deeds of other white men in Maycomb. He refers to Mr. Cunningham—a former client who had joined an angry mob with the obvious intent to harm Atticus, and likely Tom Robinson, too—as “basically a good man” who has “blind spots along with the rest of us.” He never praises Tom Robinson’s general goodness. He appreciates Calpurnia, and he demands that his children respect her, but this appreciation and respect is based on her work as an employee of the family: not on her inherent goodness or humanity. And although he treats some black people with kindness—Calpurnia included—he never treats them as equals. His kindness is more an infantilizing kindness, which he confirms in Watchman when he refers to black people as being “still in their childhood as a people.”
Even Atticus’s courtroom defense of Tom Robinson reveals shades of what’s to come in Watchman. In his closing argument, he affirms that all men are created equal in the eyes of the United States court. He refers to the court as “the one place where a man ought to get a square deal,” regardless of color. But it is only under this court that he maintains this commitment to equality. He is heroic in his abstract convictions, wedded as he is to the legal principles that he so valiantly upholds. Beyond this abstraction, however, he does little to defend the equal rights, opportunities, or humanity of the black people who are so obviously oppressed in his town.
To be clear, Atticus is not a racist monster. He espouses some monstrous views in Watchman. But even in Mockingbird, he is not the fairytale, anti-racist hero that many of us have imagined him to be. He is principled, but perhaps all too principled.
Thus, despite anyone’s justified reservations about Watchman’s publication, the book provides a much-needed context for and confirmation of the implicit racism in Mockingbird. Even if Watchman fades from literary significance, I hope that it will always lurk on Mockingbird’s horizon, destabilizing the moral myth of the great Atticus Finch. And perhaps today’s teachers can ask their students to do some of this destabilizing work themselves.
They can ask young readers to get to know both Atticus Finches.
Instead of only praising Atticus’s moral virtues—and to be clear, he has many—teachers should also ask students to unearth his racism, hidden as it is beneath his unwavering politeness and gentility. They should ask what it means for Tom Robinson’s story to be told through the lens of a nice, white man and his two white children. They should ask students what it means for racism to look and sound genteel (as it does through the words of Atticus Finch), for unjust power dynamics to appear as sweet and slow-moving as Maycomb, Alabama itself.
The history of racism in the United States is ugly and brutal. But if young readers and learners only ever discuss it in the context of its most shocking brutality, it becomes all too easy for them to miss the many instances of structurally reinforced racism that persist in contemporary U.S. society, too. This racism is so socially instituted and so culturally embedded that many people can’t even see when it’s right in front of them—even when it’s right in the words of one of the great moral heroes of American literature.
The necessity of learning to see the racism that’s just right in front of us just might make both Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird timelier than ever.