A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. A spoonful of the heroic Atticus Finch helped white people deal with our racism for over fifty years.
In 1960, most white people couldn’t face the monstrous racism our forebears had baked into American society, distinctively but not exclusively in the South. But along came Harper Lee, and she gave us Atticus Finch. This anti-racist hero risking his reputation and maybe his life to defend an innocent black man was so very wonderful. But the racism he was confronting was so very ugly. Maybe we could begin to look at it more honestly if we had Atticus to help the medicine go down.
I used the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” every year as a part of teaching ethics in my overwhelmingly white Christian college in racially divided Jackson, Tennessee. Every year I took that trip back to Maycomb with a new group of students. There was Atticus, bravely defending Tom Robinson at the jailhouse and the courthouse. There was Atticus, getting spat upon by the vicious, ignorant Bob Ewell. There was Atticus, lonely hero parenting his orphaned children. Atticus, who exemplified true Christian ethics in a context where racism had poisoned hypocritical, corrupt white Christianity.
So now Harper Lee resurrects an abandoned sixty-year-old novel and hits us with 72-year-old Atticus Finch. It’s twenty years after the Robinson trial. How is our hero doing?
Not so good. His first word on race is a sarcastic reference to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In language not unfamiliar to our own time, Atticus derisively calls the decision to mandate school integration “the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality.”
Later Atticus sits with apparent placidity on the platform of a White Citizens’ Council meeting, listening to an unimaginably vile speech that is literally vomit-worthy. (Readers will be shocked by the language in this scene.)
And still later, Atticus offers sweeping generalizations about the “backward” state of the “Negro” race, which he says is a population still in its “childhood,” not ready to participate in American democracy.
Harper Lee, what have you done to our hero Atticus Finch? Where have you gone, Gregory Peck?
Our beloved Scout (now mainly called Jean Louise), a 26-year-old New York writer back home for a visit, is outraged by what she finds in Maycomb. But not so outraged as to be unable to join her father in a derisive defense of their beloved South, early in the novel:
“Well, to hear the Post tell it, we lynch ’em for breakfast…”
And Jean Louise on the NAACP:
“I don’t know anything about that bunch except that some misguided clerk sent me some NAACP Christmas seals last year…”
This is not trashy Bob Ewell talking. This is not the worst of the worst. This is the best of the best, the Finch family talking about race in the privacy of their home. And it is not pretty.
Who knew Harper Lee had another book waiting for us? It turns out “Go Set a Watchman” was written first but never published. Like the book now out, it told the story of 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch returning home from New York to visit her aging father. While home she remembers various events from her childhood.
At the time, Lee’s editor suggested she make the flashbacks into the novel. So after considerable rewriting that is what became “To Kill a Mockingbird,” released in 1960. All it did was sell over 30 million copies and become the basis for one of the greatest movies of all time.
But now we get the first novel, or some version thereof. We get the Finch family twenty years later. It is a remarkably polished and powerful piece of work.
Much has changed. (Spoiler alerts.) Dill is gone. Jem is gone. Boo Radley is nowhere in sight; Aunt Alexandra is everywhere in sight. There’s an Uncle Jack. Our heroine has a boyfriend, Hank, who wants to marry her and also happens to be Atticus’ law associate. Atticus himself is so arthritic he can barely function. And his worldview is more than a bit arthritic itself.
I have purposely refused to read any other early reviews of “Go Set a Watchman.” So I don’t know whether other readers were satisfied with this brilliant, troubling novel’s resolution, which I will not spoil for you. Suffice it to say that encountering the Atticus of 1955 marks an end of innocence for Jean Louise. The godlike picture of her father is left behind. She will have to grow up. She will have to deal with the real man. And so will we.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was the right book in 1960 to help a predominantly white and deeply racist society begin to see itself truly. “Go Set a Watchman,” though it was written earlier, is even more appropriate for the challenges we face in 2015. It is in many ways a brutal, shocking, and appalling book. There is no spoonful of sugar this time. But Harper Lee’s depiction of the poison of racism in American society was true when it was written, and just as true today.