The Whole Truth About Atticus Finch

NOTE: Because of the timely nature of this item, Jordan and I are switching slots this week. Her post will come on Sunday. 

It’s been a rough week for fans of the book and film To Kill A Mockingbird.  

HarperCollins delivered the “new” Harper Lee novel, Go Set A Watchman. Many people urlstill harbor strong suspicions that the aging and infirm Ms. Lee was manipulated after fifty years of steadfastly refusing to publish anything else.

Be that as it may, it’s here. Strangely unedited (it renders a different version of the Tom Robinson trial, for example), the novel is primarily about one thing––a daughter’s coming to terms with her less-than-perfect father.

That’s the big shocker everyone is talking about: In Watchman, Atticus Finch is revealed to be a segregationist. He does not want the government or the courts telling him or his community how to live. He thinks the Supreme Court is using the Fourteenth Amendment to erase the Tenth Amendment. And he believes the black population is not ready for the responsibilities of citizenship.

In Watchman, Atticus is a member of the Citizens’ Council of Maycomb County, a group of white men strategizing on how to deal with Brown v. Board of Education, and the incursion of the NAACP and northern progressives into the South.

Harper Lee w:her father
Harper Lee with her father, Amasa Coleman Lee

The grown-up Jean Louise Finch (Scout from Mockingbird) discovers this about the father she idolized as a child. It all leads to the climactic scene––a knockdown argument between Jean Louise and Atticus over the “negroes” (the term the book uses).

“Let’s look at it this way,” Atticus says. “You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward’, don’t you?”

Jean Louise is horrified and responds: “You are a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus.” She goes on to compare him to Hitler (!) and admittedly tries to grind him into the ground.

As a historical document, written in the mid-1950s, Watchman is reflective of so many similar confrontations that took place back then––college-educated white children coming home to challenge their parents’ views on race, especially in the South.

I will not reveal what happens in the last chapter. Suffice to say I was simultaneously moved and unsatisfied by it. Which may be the very point Harper Lee, the author, intended to make.

We live in an imperfect world, loving imperfect people.

Which brings us back to Atticus Finch. He was always seen as a virtual saint, especially as played by Gregory Peck in the movie.

But what everyone seems to miss is that Atticus held the same segregationist views in Mockingbird.

I’ve taught Mockingbird in seminars, most notably the Story Masters sessions I do with Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler. We go through the book chapter by chapter, talking about technique and style.

There is a single, enigmatic passage in the book that’s always troubled me. I never knew quite what to do with it. Until now, with the publication of Watchman.

It comes early in Chapter 15, the very chapter where Atticus sets himself in front of the lynch mob at the jail. The narrator, Scout, reflects on how Atticus would sometimes ask, “Do you really think so?” as a way to get people to think more deeply.

That was Atticus’s dangerous question. “Do you really think you want to move there, Scout?” Bam, bam, bam and the checkerboard was swept clean of my men. “Do you really think that, son? Then read this.” Jem would struggle the rest of an evening through the speeches of Henry W. Grady.

So what was Jem’s opinion? Who was Henry W. Grady? Why would Atticus give his boy a book of Grady’s speeches?

In light of what I’m about to reveal, I think Jem (who is the more sensitive of the children) probably said something along these lines: “Atticus, it’s just not fair that colored kids don’t get to go to school with white kids.”

Atticus gives him the Grady speeches, which are available online.

Henry W. Grady (1850-1889) was a post-Civil War advocate of what he called the “New South.”

The old South rested everything on slavery and agriculture, unconscious that these could neither give nor maintain healthy growth. The new South presents a perfect democracy, the oligarchs leading in the popular movement; a social system compact and closely knitted, less splendid on the surface, but stronger at the core; a hundred farms for every plantation, fifty homes for every palace; and a diversified industry that meets the complex needs of this complex age.

The new South is enamored of her new work. Her soul is stirred with the breath of a new life.

But what about the population of emancipated slaves? What of their future? Grady said things like this:

What is this negro vote? In every Southern State it is considerable, and I fear it is increasing. It is alien, being separated by radical differences that are deep and permanent. It is ignorant — easily deluded or betrayed. It is impulsive — lashed by a word into violence. It is purchasable, having the incentive of poverty and cupidity, and the restraint of neither pride nor conviction. It can never be merged through logical or orderly currents into either of two parties, if two should present themselves. We cannot be rid of it. There it is, a vast mass of impulsive, ignorant, and purchasable votes. With no factions between which to swing it has no play or dislocation; but thrown from one faction to another it is the loosed cannon on the storm-tossed ship.

These, then, were the views Atticus was passing along to Jem in Mockingbird, and holding onto in Watchman.

In other words, Atticus Finch was never a perfect saint.

But let me ask you this: who among us is? I’ve not known very many in my lifetime.

Which means this complex Atticus Finch is a more realistic character than the “perfect” one. He is still the man who defended Tom Robinson to the best of his ability. But he also holds odious, segregationist views. Jean Louise (and Harper Lee) make clear how wrong that is.

So what do we do with such a man, or woman, or family member? What are the limits of love? What is the cost of growing up? Are we compelled to hate those who hold views we cannot abide?

That’s what Harper Lee is asking in Go Set A Watchman.

The novel does not destroy the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. Rather, it renders him flawed and therefore human.

You know, like the rest of us.

Jesus taught people to hate the sin, but love the sinner. In a world of so much hate, this message is exactly what we need to hear. Harper Lee’s novel, so long locked up in a safety deposit box, may therefore be more important than we think.

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29 thoughts on “The Whole Truth About Atticus Finch

  1. Interesting. So why, do you think, it is only now being released? Why did Harper not publish this book when it was written?

    • We don’t really know, Amanda, and that’s the part I’m uncomfortable about. After the success of Mockingbird, book and film, I suspect Harper Lee did not see any good reason to release or rework what was essentially a previous attempt at the same material. She saw what Atticus had become in the public mind. Plus, her own father (the model for Atticus) had by this time rejected his segregationist views. That part of her life, then, had been worked out.

    • I read that her editor at the time simply didn’t think it was a strong enough book, and advised her to write one about the young Scout.

  2. I think the best insight on Lee’s latest comes from The Onion: “Harper Lee Announces Third Novel, ‘My Excellent Caretaker Deserves My Entire Fortune’ “

    • I saw that, Mike. The Onion does not hold back on satire, does it?

      Anyway, as a former criminal lawyer, I still believe in the presumption of innocence, so I’m not going to make a final judgment. But as a writer and observer, I do have uneasiness about all this. I don’t think the lawyer in this matter has been interviewed live, has she? Odd.

  3. I’ve been somewhat troubled by the fury of the backlash to “Watchman” and its more nuanced portrait of the imperfect Atticus. But I understand it. We crave redemptive and hopeful themes in our fiction as an anecdote to reality, and this often comes by way of a child’s consciousness, even a precocious one like Scout . Lee’s second go at telling her story offers this. What is not to love in Mockingbird? But I think there is something of value in the Watchman version as well — as you say, Jim, a more human and maybe more clear-eyed view of a man. Good post. Worthwhile reading in what has been a fascinating discussion.

    • I love Atticus as portrayed by Gregory Peck even more than the print version. In thinking of him, I believe he would change his views on segregation, just like Harper Lee’s real father.

      Wish there could have been a third novel…ha! Anyway, it’s too bad Harper Lee did not pursue more writing in her prime.

  4. EXCELLENT POST, Jim! Of all the commentaries I’ve read about Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, yours is the only one that employs close reading of the text to make your point.

  5. It took guts for her to broach this subject matter, then and even more now (because of all the attention of social media). Her portrayal of Atticus, influenced by her own father’s journey, took courage to shed light and explore. I can understand why it took convincing her that Watchman be released. She’d lived it and watched her father make the transition. It was a personal journey that she had behind her

    I suspect there is a huge monetary incentive for the publisher, but I can only hope Watchman opens honest dialogue on the subject of race relations in this country.

    Thanks for thr insightful and timely post, Jim.

  6. Jim, wonderful post. And great discussion.

    I love your conclusion. And at this time of a widening chasm between beliefs and philosophies, this message of tolerance and love may be just what we need.

    With all the controversy around the publishing of the book, I had planned to pass on reading it. Now I have no choice but to read.

    Thanks for your insight.

    • I think the reading of it will lead to deeper discussions than most people realize. I suspect that was Harper Lee’s motive for writing it in the first place.

  7. As a child living in the South in the 60’s and 70’s, I viewed the character of Atticus (especially in the film version) as a bit of a fairy tale. There weren’t any people like him in the world I knew in South Carolina, which is one reason why I decamped from that place as soon as possible. I’m glad to have an opportunity to get to know the “real” character of Atticus, warts and all. The fact that he had flaws doesn’t erase the importance of his courageous actions in that trial, but it does frame those actions in a more realistic context. I’m looking forward to reading the new book–I suspect that the Atticus in that story will seem much more familiar to me, less of a fairy tale.

    • Yes, The Gregory Peck Atticus was an ideal. I’m not against that in fiction. It can work…but with flaws it may work even better, right? That’s what we say to new writers: render your hero with a mix of strength and flaws.

  8. I realize people are flawed and I appreciate your interpretation. But I still believe “Watchman” has demaged Harper Lee’s legacy. I’m sorry she didn’t write more about Atticus to clarify his character. And though I have no proof, I have the uneasy feeling she didn’t make this choice entirely on her own. She had years to release this novel. Why now?

    • Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll get a clear answer on Harper Lee’s own wishes. That’s too bad, and there will always be a cloud around this. But we have what we have now, and I think there is a thread here that is, in its way, powerful and moving.

  9. There were very few of that time period who weren’t racists, even the most perfect missionary was usually patriarchal at his core. My father certainly was one of them. Finch didn’t do it out of love for Tom, he did it out of hatred of injustice. The fact that Finch could hold these views and still defend Tom with such vigor shows the strength of the character.

    The published “unpublished” manuscripts are an interesting lot. The last of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, “The First Four Years,” was finished and published after her death. It’s a different book. darker, rawer, less dewy-eyed. It talks about their lives as a young married couple and refers to her first pregnancy as “paying the piper.” There is a look at their grinding poverty and failure at farming because Almanzo really wasn’t much of a business man. In a lot of ways, it is much more honest than the rest of the books. It didn’t have the editorial whitewash.

    • Very interesting about the Wilder books, Terri. Yes, in a sense, that more honest approach deepens the story, doesn’t it? That could be the case here.

  10. I think your post is very insightful, and perhaps for the sake of gritty realism, this is a “better” portrayal of Atticus Finch. However, I don’t think we have enough heroes, real or fictional. I don’t care to see one of mine diminished.

    I also didn’t like the dismissal of Jem as a character or the portrayal of the adult Jean Louise. In the opening chapter at least, she didn’t ring true as Scout for me.

    I’m not saying people shouldn’t read the book if they want to. Of course they should. It’s just not for me. I like the Finches just as To Kill a Mockingbird leaves them:

    “[Atticus] would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

    Perhaps this certainty and security despite life’s challenges is something that has passed us by. Perhaps it has never existed. But I like it, and at least in what I choose to read, I want to keep it.

    • I think that’s a valid choice, DeAnna. Remember when they decided to do a sequel to GWTW? That book is largely forgotten now. Perhaps that will be the case here.

      • Oh, dear. Don’t get me started. As with the new/old Harper Lee book, I was SO looking forward to more Scarlett and Rhett. What did we get? The quick disposition of all the characters we wanted to revisit and Scarlett and Rhett apart for most of the book. Ireland? Please. I wanted Tara! Granted, once I realized I wasn’t going to get what I was hoping for, I skimmed the last 2/3 of the book to get to the Rhett scenes. By the end, I was sorry I had read the thing, but I’ve largely forgotten it, so GWTW isn’t spoiled for me. 🙂

  11. Thanks for raising this issue, Jim.

    Upfront disclaimer: I’ve not read the book. What I know about it is what I’ve read from others writing about it, almost a universal whine that their lifelong hero is a racist!!!!! Can we please cut loose of the political correctness? Atticus Finch was a southerner of his time. In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, he saw an injustice being done and tried to halt it. In the prequel/sequel, he showed that he could still be very much of his era, and not someone with 21st century sensibilities.

    Those excerpts you included in your post were in fact views that were widely held in the South in those days, even by intellectuals. We all know this. This was a time when there was no strangling political correctness. I would even daresay Harper Lee herself held these views at that time, and maybe still does.

    The point is that saints of all stripes usually have a date with destiny, a time when their imperfections are revealed, when they are shown to be human.

    • Mike, indeed, Watchman has that feel of the big reveal. But looking back at Mockingbird in light of it, Atticus still remains a noble figure, for doing what was right and just even when he knew it would cost him and his family in town.

  12. I finished the book yesterday and I have to agree with you, and I love how you phrased It: “The novel does not destroy the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. Rather, it renders him flawed and therefore human.

    You know, like the rest of us.”

    I found the book to be really raw and blatantly, cruelly honest. I grew up in Alabama, a little later than the 50’s, but I imagine she portrayed it exactly as it was. The thing with To Kill a Mockingbird is that it had the gentler perspective of a child. And having taken place 15 years earlier, it was a less antagonistic time. This book tells the truth about what the South was like, and what it was like to be a Southerner, in the 50’s. And sometimes truth is ugly. But I think it ultimately brings a positive message. And probably could have benefited from a little editing and expansion in the last chapter.

    I have to say, it makes me very happy that Harper Lee’s own father changed his views on segregation before he died. A lot of Southerners changed their views as time went on.

    And I love your conclusion that this is about loving people no matter how wrong we think their views are. I can’t think of a more perfect time in our country’s existence, in my lifetime at least, for this message than right now.

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