It’s been a tough season of late for heroes. They are shattering all around.
Lance Armstrong, who beat cancer to win the Tour de France a record seven times, is revealed to be a doper who bullied other cyclists into silence. Greg Mortenson, who claimed to build hundreds of schools in Afghanistan, a humanitarian project described in his book Three Cups of Tea, is revealed to be a fraud. Bill Cosby, who used his fame as a comedian to lecture his fellow African-Americans on how to live, is now alleged to be a major lecher, drugging women to have sex with them.
Possibly toughest of all–no less so because he is fictional and not a real person–is the loss of Atticus Finch, the lawyer and father of the narrator in the beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird, who risked his reputation and his family’s safety to go against the white establishment of the 1930s South to represent and defend in court a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman.
As all the world knows by now, that characterization of Atticus has been damaged, if not destroyed, by the revelation in Ms. Lee’s newly published novel—Go Set a Watchman, which picks up the action of Mockingbird twenty years later—that Atticus Finch in his older years became a racist bigot.
Atticus Finch: racist bigot? Much of the media coverage of this stunning revelation can be filed under the heading “To kill an icon” (also here, here, and here).
Why does this loss feel so acute? Because the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird was something we do not have in this reduced, amoral age: a moral hero. To do what he did—defending a black man—in a region of the country that only generations earlier held black people as slaves, and doing the defending alone, at a time preceding an organized civil rights movement—qualified him as a true moral hero, one who, weighing the rightness and wrongness of things, steps up and does the right thing.
It was this Atticus Finch, the moral icon, for whom parents named their sons; in fact, the name has grown in popularity with the years. Countless lawyers went into the law because of this Atticus. Countless people who endured a cold childhood wished they’d had Atticus as a father. Mockingbird is a curriculum staple in the nation’s schools. The film adaptation, winning its star Gregory Peck an Oscar for best actor, has become a classic. The American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch the No. 1 movie hero of all time. He inspired, profoundly, this cultural icon.
Now, in Watchman—it’s painful to relate the following—we have an Atticus who, as discovered by his now grown daughter, has a pamphlet lying around titled “The Black Plague” and who attends the local council dedicated to preserving the second-class stature of blacks and opposing “mongrelization.” Who asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Who admonishes his daughter for her idealistic view of racial equality: “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Who denounces the U.S. Supreme Court (the novel is set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision) and wants his home state of Alabama “to be left alone to keep house without advice from the N.A.A.C.P.”
As described further by a reviewer:
“Atticus….isn’t a vicious white supremacist bent on hurting black people. But he’s committed to states’ rights and Southern tradition, and sees only catastrophe in an integrated society. In essence, a man who’s used the courts in search of racial justice seeks to keep blacks in their place with the help of the law. Under a mask of dedication to American-style self-reliance—he’s said to have ‘a constitutional distrust of paternalism and government in large doses’—Atticus supports racism.”
Unsettling as these revelations are, also unsettling is the commentary attesting that such revelations make Atticus “more human.” Not so.
To be sure, in attesting to a racist Atticus as “more human,” commentators (here, here, here, and here), to the extent they make it clear, claim this development adds complexity and complication to an idealized portrait of Atticus in Mockingbird, one painted by an innocent and idolizing young daughter. O.K., true: Atticus is now more complex, more complicated.
But if you hold what it means to be human to a high standard, if you define humanity upward and not downward toward pathology, then someone who categorically denies the humanity of an entire class of people, based on whatever grounds, and reserves all authority for his own class, as the racist does, then that person cannot be said to be fully human himself. He is less human, not more. This includes the Atticus of Watchman, who condescends to blacks as a people still in their childhood.
This tendency to redefine humanity downward is increasingly evident in our new cultural icons. See: Chemistry teacher Walter White of the wildly popular TV series Breaking Bad—this title illustrates the downward tendency—who, terminally ill, cooks meth to provide for his family, an objective presumably making this criminal “more human.” See: Mob boss Tony Soprano, of the wildly popular The Sopranos, who “whacks” his rivals and becomes “more human” by sharing the stresses of his criminal life with a psychotherapist. The power of these icons is seen in the example of Gordon Gekko, amoral financier of the 1987 film Wall Street, whose credo “Greed is good” filtered into the culture and became the norm. See: Countless Wall Street types who cite this credo as their mantra. Cultural degradation comes about step by downward step; it then becomes “only human” to engage in these reduced norms, permitting everything from cooking meth to whacking rivals to taking risks that blow up the financial system.
(Parenthetically, regarding Armstrong, Mortenson, and Cosby cited earlier, I don’t detect any explaining away of their sins—doping and bullying, fraud, and lechery, respectively—as making them “more human.”)
With the revelation in Watchman of Atticus Finch as racist, this Atticus does indeed become “more human” in this respect: If he did harbor the racist leanings in Mockingbird that are made manifest in Watchman, then in defending Tom Robinson as vigorously as he did in Mockingbird, he achieved, precisely because of his own profound internal struggle, something even greater than was recognized at the time. Atticus did a great and good thing—for Tom, for society—despite his true racist self.
I would like to think that the Atticus Finch so universally loved as a moral icon would himself ultimately recognize his own internal contradictions, the hideous flaw in his own humanity, and take himself to account. The path might be via his lawyerly training and faith in the law. In Mockingbird he calls the courts “the great leveler”; he might pull himself level, finally, with the Tom Robinsons of the world.
Or Atticus might have a catharsis—fully recognizing late what he did not know earlier—and fully recognize the great human wisdom he mouthed in Mockingbird, that: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” When I as a questing teen first heard that line, I knew it was Truth. For Atticus the white supremacist to climb into the skin of Tom Robinson and truly recognize Tom’s humanity, and Tom’s moral heroism, would redeem Atticus and make him truly “more human.” More than that, it would make Atticus and Tom “more human” to each other.
I also hope against hope Harper Lee has a third novel in store, that takes the events of Mockingbird and Watchman and weighs them at the end of the day. In Watchman, when Atticus’ racism fully penetrates, the daughter lashes out: “I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.” While Atticus deserves this outburst and the daughter is entitled to her fury at the loss of her idol, nonetheless she comes across as self-righteous. (In our twenties we can be awfully self-righteous, especially when we are right.) Adding complexity and complication, the father she now attacks is the same father who planted the fundamentals of racial justice she embraces. It would be fascinating to see the daughter, fully matured, seek to understand the forces that shaped her father, and to see Atticus seek to resolve his contradictions, or be forced to. Squaring their circle—in microcosm, America’s original sin—would yield the “more human” tale as well as history.
In all the media play about Watchman, I couldn’t help wondering how the film incarnation of Atticus, Gregory Peck, would react to the revelation his character was deep down a bigot. Peck was a life-long champion of civil rights, who chose his roles carefully. In Gentleman’s Agreement, he played a reporter investigating anti-Semitism in ’40s America. When it came to Atticus, Peck personally identified with him: “I never had a part that came close to being the real me until Atticus Finch.” It would be fascinating to see Peck furrow the brow and grapple with Atticus’ racism.
Some of the media play took down Mockingbird itself, noting the latent racism in that Atticus (also here). An essay titled “Mockingbird, Inc.” not only questions (rightly) the circumstances behind the publication of Watchman, citing an over-eager publisher, but also takes down the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird, snidely reducing him to “a walking soapbox for moralistic bromides.” Such takedown, however, begs the question: How did that “moralistic” Atticus Finch become so beloved? In an amoral time such are ours, we want—no, we need—the moral hero. Mob bosses who whack rivals can never fill that yearning, no matter how “human” they’re made out to be.
In all this it should be noted black people generally do not regard Mockingbird as highly as white people do. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison calls it a “white savior” narrative that reduces blacks to mere spectators in their own struggle for equality.
How timely this discussion, this moral drama is. In this post-Charleston, post-Ferguson moment, when black people are claiming ever more insistently that black lives matter, it is becoming ever more clear that white supremacy and white privilege must be unpacked and resolved—by white people. As historian Taylor Branch says, “Things are starting to shake loose.” Isabel Wilkerson, African-American writer, asks, “Could we now be at the start of a true and more meaningful reconstruction?” To get us there, we will need all sorts of heroes.
To kill a racist bigot (metaphorically)—and gain true humanity.
“Go Set a Watchman” was Harper Lee’s first completed manuscript. At an editor’s
suggestion, she recast and rewrote that manuscript to produce the coming-of-age novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” For a description of that process, see here.
Carla Seaquist’s latest book, “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality,” is just published. An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death,” which include “Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” and “Kate and Kafka,” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.” Her early career was in civil rights.