Why I'm Not Crying Over Atticus Finch Becoming A Racist

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Most of us will bear witness to one perfect novel in our lifetimes. For as long as I’ve been alive — and for generations before that, and perhaps for generations to come — that book has been To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s been a staple of English classrooms around the world, used to provoke conversation around racism, injustice, and empathy. It has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. It made Harper Lee one of the most famous authors in the world, and it was the only novel she published for 55 years.

On July 14, Lee’s insanely anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman, will be released. The story is set 20 years later, in the same Alabama town that's torn apart when Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch decides to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, believing everyone deserves a chance at justice. Last week, The New York Times’ early review of Watchman revealed that Finch, the moral nougat of Mockingbird, is an n-word-dropping bigot who’s been to Klan rallies and admonishes his now-adult daughter, Scout, with proclamations so antithetical to the lessons he taught her as a child, she is broken by them:

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” he asks Scout, who goes by Jean Louise in the new book.

The nougat has gone bad. No longer does it bind the great lessons of humanity and righteousness, morality and justice, together in one perfect hero within one perfect novel. Atticus Finch has become a soured, old asshole.

Anyone who ever fell in love with Mockingbird started to weep publicly at the news. A #SaveAtticus hashtag popped up on Twitter. People clamored for a boycott of the book, begging for mercy on their childhood memories.

I get it, but I’m not weeping with them. In fact, I’m relieved.

Since 1960, when Mockingbird was first published, Atticus Finch has been held up as the gold standard of a moral literary hero. He’s a widowed father of two: Scout, his wisecracking daughter (who is also the book’s narrator), and Jem, her older brother. Mockingbird's Finch is a pacifist and an intellectual. He takes on the seemingly impossible case of Tom Robinson not because he will get rich (he won’t) or because he thinks he’ll win (he doesn’t) — but because he feels morally compelled to do so.

When Scout asks her dad, “If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it?” His reply is simple. He’s so determined to fight for justice that he’s willing to risk his reputation and his livelihood:

“If I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this country in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again… Every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess.”

Cue the slow clap. Atticus Finch makes us believe that people compelled by their convictions for justice walk among us. You can imagine attorney Sarah Weddington channeling Atticus Finch when, at 26, she tried her first case in front of the Supreme Court, going on to win Roe v. Wade. Shades of Atticus Finch show up in characters on stage and screen, too. There’s Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda) in 12 Angry Men, the only member of the jury who gives the inner-city teen accused of murder the benefit of the doubt; or Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) in Philadelphia, who pushes through his own prejudices to argue a discrimination suit filed by a gay man with AIDS.

We want to believe that Atticus Finches are real. But I’m not sure that they are. The nature of humanity dictates that we are all flawed. Great characters need to reflect the good and the bad of human nature — even the really, horribly bad — in order for them to be believable. I have only read the first chapter of Watchman, and will have to wait with the rest of the world to dive into it tomorrow. I’m not sure how I’ll feel about Atticus when I get to the final page. Like those heartbroken fans, I am disgusted by what he stands for in this book, and crushed that he breaks Scout’s heart and makes her question everything she once held true and pure about her father. But I do know that I sanction Lee’s literary choice to present her character in this way. It more accurately reflects the reality of human beings, even if this iteration of Atticus is the type of human being I’d just as soon kick in the face.

Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee’s first draft of what would become To Kill a Mockingbird. When her editors returned it and asked her to instead focus on Scout’s childhood, Lee gave Atticus Finch the responsibility of crafting Scout’s conscience, despite the author's existing vision of what he would become. Is it so hard to believe that a white lawyer in the 1930s, who risked so much for a black man he didn’t know, would harbor a bit of resentment? Or at least become hardened by the tsunami of racial injustices that would no doubt crush his spirit in the years that followed? Isn’t it safer to assume that potential was always there?

In the 1930s, racism was more firmly engrained in America's collective consciousness; and in the South especially, there was an air of understanding that it was just the way things were. In Mockingbird, little Scout, perhaps the much more realistic hero of the book, uses the n-word as easily as if she were singing a song about the summer breeze. Atticus, of course, tells her not to say it. His reasoning: “That’s common.” To which she replies, in the unfiltered honesty that only a child can possess: “Well if you don’t want me to grow up talkin’ that way, why do you send me to school?”

That ultimate hate word was something Scout learned in school. Its razor’s edge was felt sharply by the Black people at whom it was hurled, of course, but for white folks like the Finches, it was simply a noun.

Twenty years later in Watchman, it's the dawn of the civil rights movement, and Atticus has gone from being held up by some as a heroic precursor to the struggle, to being vehemently against it. In Mockingbird, he is persecuted and turned into an outcast for standing up for civil rights — in Watchman he’s witnessing the escalation of a fight that he feels can’t be won.

To me, then, To Kill a Mockingbird is still a perfect novel, made even more so by the ways in which the characters have evolved in Watchman. Until now, Atticus Finch never felt that relatable, not really. He was an icon. He was a moral demigod, made even more immortal by the Oscar-winning film adaptation, in which Atticus was played by that beloved pillar of nobility, Gregory Peck. Lee has broken the hearts of those who worshipped Atticus Finch by revealing one of the truths authors hold most sacred: Perfect heroes don’t exist.

Imagine Huckleberry Finn without his penchant for petty theft or flagrant use of the n-word. His friendship with Jim, a runaway slave, wouldn’t mean as much, his efforts to save him wouldn’t be felt so deeply, if he weren’t first shown to be a product of his upbringing.

Jay Gatsby would be no more interesting than Bill Gates — just another super-rich, kinda boring white guy — if not for his criminal extravagance. Daisy surely wouldn’t have paid him any attention if it weren’t also a risk to do so.

Meridian from Alice Walker’s novel of the same name and Celie from The Color Purple are both paragons of strength and perseverance, but they’re also imperfect. Meridian is a leader who is insecure and a little bit selfish, and Celie returns to her abuser again and again.

Nary a Shakespearian character would be so memorable if not for his or her flaws. Othello’s vanity, Lady Macbeth’s greed, even Juliet’s somewhat pitiful naiveté, are the traits that make them so timeless. Their failings are exaggerations of the weaknesses of humanity; surely no one is actually quite like Lady Macbeth or Jay Gatsby.

And perhaps no one is as decent or as just as the version of Atticus Finch that we have idolized for five decades. But knowing now that he, too, is capable of moral weakness, of corruption, and of being the very thing he warns Scout to avoid — “common” — he is, regrettably, more human than ever.

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