Thursday 23 July 2015

Atticus Finch, by Leslie Wilson

So: it's out at last, the long-awaited 'sequel' (though it was actually the precursor) of the beloved 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' I can't have been the only one who, when she first read that 'Go Set a Watchman' dealt with the later life of Scout and Atticus Finch, imagined them both marching forward into the '50s with anti-racist banners waving. How naïve of me! Because even 'Mockingbird', when I read it, left me uneasy about Atticus's views.

The book has generated a furore; unsurprisingly. It is deeply upsetting to see the lovable father of 'Mockingbird' growling his racist opinons in the most repellant manner. I think it is this shock and disappointment that has also provoked some hostile receptions of the book itself, with some critics describing it as 'less lovable' and even 'mediocre.' As Hadley Freeman said in the 'Guardian', this maybe validates Lee's initial decision not to let it be published.

Personally, I think publishing it as a novel in itself, 'an unforgettable novel', the jacket blurb tells us, was a wrong decision in absolute terms, though not, doubtless, in commercial ones! I would prefer to see it published in a back-to-back edition with 'Mockingbird', because it is a first draft, unedited, and a valuable piece of archival material which deserves to be published on that account. But it is anything but mediocre.

What I read in 'Watchman' was a piece of compelling and horrifically fascinating writing; much darker than 'Mockingbird', and undoubtedly less of a superb achievement - but after all, this draft was written first. To me, the most remarkable thing about 'Mockingbird' is the way in which a whole adult world, not ducking out of its darkest aspects - rape, lynchings, incest - is evoked from the point of view of an eight year-old. The childhood parts of 'Watchman' display the same wry humour and unerring characterisation - and they are all a joy, and new, for most of them deal with Scout's adolescence. 'Watchman' would be worth reading for these alone.

Only - only there is this older, repellent Atticus. How can we bear him? Perhaps by trying to comprehend what he really is.

Listen to Jem in 'Mockingbird', describing the society of Maycomb County.

'There's four kinds of folks in the world. There's the ordinary kind like us and the neighbours, there's the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.' The children then try to work out what the difference is between the four kinds of people - education, property? and Scout opines that there's no difference at all, really, they're all just 'folks.' Because Walter Cunningham, for example, is 'as smart as he can be, he just gets held back sometimes because he has to stay out and help his daddy.'

Contrast this insight of Scout's with Atticus's remarks in the courtroom, disparaging people who 'promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious.. because all men are created equal, the educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inequality.' I take it that 'promote' means allowing children like Walter Cunningham to move up a class, rather than keeping them back if they didn't make the grade. Atticus doesn't recognise his intelligence, nor does he contradict his sister when she forbids Scout to play with Walter because he is 'trash' (and he doesn't allow his daughter to go and visit the black servant Calpurnia at her home, either.) And what is one of the crucial things that Atticus objects to in 'Watchman?' To black kids being offered the same opportunities, education-wise, as the white ones. He loathes the NAACP - the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, who have a long history of fighting for equal educational rights for black people. His objection to the advancement of black men and women to full citizenship is that they are 'backward', and he deeply mistrusts the organisation that is seeking to make them less so.

The society of Maycomb contains impoverished 'aristocrats' and ex-slave owners like the Finches; then the Cunninghams who are 'deserving poor' (or 'deserving trash), then the totally undeserving 'white trash' like the Ewells, and finally the black people who are totally at the bottom of the heap. It's a stratified and rigid class system, and the Finches sit at the top of it.

Atticus, talking to Jem about the black people's lot in Maycomb, tells him: 'As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, or how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.'

This is an aristocrat speaking about noblesse oblige. It doesn't mean that Atticus wants to reverse the order of society or even change the condition of black people in any other way than giving them justice. It is almost on a level with kindness to animals. If you are in a privileged position, you should justify it by behaving properly to those below you.

Both this novel, and 'Watchman' were written in the '50s, in a very different world from now, and 'Mockingbird' is set in 1935. The fact that Uncle Jack brings Scout to her senses (in the book's terms) by clouting her across the head is pretty shocking to me, but this was an era when that kind of behaviour was considered acceptable. Consider the Georgette Heyer stories where the heroes talk blithely about husbands beating their wives. In 'Watchman', the involvement of Communists in the struggle for racial equality is tacitly considered to discredit those struggles, though in fact the most famous 'rape' case of the inter-war years, that of the Scottsboro Boys, was defended, not by a noble-minded Southern aristocrat, but by Communist lawyers. But in the Cold War 50s, ridden by terror of Reds under the bed, 'Communist' was a dirty word. We have at least come far enough now to acknowledge that not all actions carried out by Communists were evil. But the past is another country.

And on that topic; quite a lot of commentators have expressed their horror that the word 'negro' is used interchangeably with 'black' in 'Watchman', as it is in 'Mockingbird', come to that. That's another example of the past being another country. When I was a child in the '50s, and we had black YMCA secretaries coming to stay in the house, I was taught that the respectful way to refer to them was 'negro.' 'Black' (as in 'Little Black Sambo') was dreadfully offensive. It wasn't till the Black Power movement took off that the word was reclaimed and 'negro' became offensive. I do wish people would trouble to find this simple fact out. The other 'N-word' has always been offensive, but that is a different matter.

So let's look at Atticus Finch, a man of his time, who has been given the job of defending a black man accused of rape, when most of his own class, and the other local white people, expect him not to defend Tom Robinson at all. Even if it is noblesse oblige, even something like kindness to animals, is it easy for Atticus to stand up for his aristocratic principles and his belief in abstract justice? Of course not. He is vilified by his own class, Bob Ewell, the father of the supposed 'victim,' spits in his face; his children suffer, and finally only just escape death at Ewell's hands.

If the Atticus who sits alone outside the prison to protect Tom from the lynch mob is far from a modern anti-racist, can we vilify him for that? We may feel that we've come further than he has, like Scout herself in 'Watchman' - and even she has views that grate on a modern reader. But it takes real courage for Atticus to go as far as he does. He actually believes a black man deserves the same justice as a white person! Most of the residents of Maycomb County don't share that conviction.
Harper Lee

There is a tendency in modern life to dissect the reformers of the past and almost gloat over what we consider to be their failings. To criticise the initial campaigns against slavery because they 'only' focussed on the abolition of the trade, rather than abolition altogether. But as far as I know nobody, up till the eighteenth century, had ever questioned the institution of slavery. It was part of the world set-up, and had been for as long as history went back. The astonishing fact is that people did get up and become uneasy about it - and then went on to campaign against slavery altogether. Our ideas about racial justice and equality are based on the actions of those who went before us. The steps they took make it possible for us to take further ones.

In fact, how much do modern Britons (to say nothing of Americans) have to be proud of even now? In a country where a black lawyer, entering a conference chamber, can be assumed by her colleagues to be the tea-lady, and where if the police are called to a disturbance, their reaction is too often to arrest the black victim of violence. Black people are discriminated against on a daily basis at all levels of British society. Those of us who are white sit on a cushion of privilege which perhaps we're barely aware of and it ill behoves us to sit in judgement.

So I would like to say to Atticus Finch - yes, you are a racist, and many of your opinions make my hair stand on end - but all the same, I salute your courage.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm rereading Mockingbird right now, before I allow myself to read Watchman. Your comments are interesting and I'll take them into consideration when I read. Thank you for sharing!

Leslie Wilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie Wilson said...

I re-read Mockingbird after reading Watchman, and I think you're doing it the right way round!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for this interesting review. I'd wondered about reading both books together, so thanks for the useful reading order.

Clare Mulley said...

I have just given Mockingbird to my daughter, perhaps we will both go on to read Watchman afterwards. I will show her your blog too, thank you

Ann Turnbull said...

It's well over 50 years since I read Mockingbird, so I shall read that one again first. Thank you for this interesting and insightful post, Leslie. You are right about the change in usage of 'black' and 'negro'. I do remember it changing. And I agree that we should not judge people's attitudes in the past in the light of what has happened since.

Celia Rees said...

I've just bought the book and haven't yet read it but I've been following the debate with interest. You are right, Leslie, to point out that Harper Lee was writing in and of her time and reflecting the attitudes that prevailed at that time in that place. She could hardly do otherwise and I find it odd that hands are raised in horror at the notion that the society that she is writing about is racist from top to bottom. The amazing thing is that she ISN'T and thus shows that some things were changing. As for Atticus, I don't find it at all strange that, as a lawyer, he might have deeply paternalistic attitudes towards 'negroes' but still believe in equality before the law. Also Atticus Finch is a FICTION. He's not a real person. Harper Lee is quite within her rights as an author to refine and reprise his character between one book and another. I fail to see what the fuss is about.

Y S Lee said...

Thanks for this nuanced look at Watchman, Leslie. I'm planning to reread Mockingbird before tackling Watchman, but it occurs to me that imbuing Atticus Finch with our most progressive present views of race would break with the novel's realism. Still, I'm finding it hard to let go of the idealized character I hold dear.

DCK said...

To read or not to read...after your account of 'Watchman', Leslie, it has to be the former. Having delved into the text of 'Mockingbird' with students, just think of the fun examiners are now going to have with their compare and contrast questions, character arcs and changing viewpoints. Endless. Even a discussion of the value of publishing 'Watchman' would be interesting. Looking forward to meeting the 'new' Atticus, warts and all.