Atticus Finch Still Walks a Righteous (If Winding) Path
- By Talmage Boston
- July 28, 2015
The Watchman story the world is missing
A breathless media warned readers of Harper Lee’s new Go Set a Watchman that they would surely feel betrayed and scandalized by the transformation of Christ-like To Kill a Mockingbird hero Atticus Finch into a hypocrite whose late-in-life “black-is-black-and-white-is-white” attitude shift appears to be in total conflict with his prior high-minded beliefs.
But now, after months of anticipation, analysis, and often baseless predictions, the public can purchase Watchman, read it, reflect on it, and draw its own conclusions about the lives of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her noble father, Atticus, as portrayed in Lee’s two memoir-novels.
My conclusions? While Mockingbird is the story of Lee’s “coming of age” as a child, Watchman is the tale of her “coming of age” as a young woman — in the context of awakening to the ugly realities of race relations in Alabama during the 1930s and 1950s. Throughout the books’ 20-year timeline, Jean Louise manages never to backslide, as her color-blind eyes keep opening wider to the realities of African Americans’ struggle in the Deep South. Atticus also shows his own growth, but it’s been drowned out by those who have recoiled at having their long-held perceptions challenged.
First, some background.
In the avalanche of coverage leading up to the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the public learned that Lee’s “new” novel (written in 1957) had been delivered not at the behest of its now-elderly, nearly blind and deaf author. Rather, it came from her lawyer, Tonja Carter, who in the recent past had discovered the manuscript in a safe-deposit box. Upon reading it, Carter became 2015’s Indiana Jones; she’d found the Lost Ark!
Fueling the media frenzy was the advance word that Watchman was a tale about the beloved Mockingbird father-daughter duo of Atticus and Scout Finch. Although Watchman had been rejected by Lee’s editor three years before the release of Mockingbird, its plot was set 20 years after Mockingbird, at a time when Jean Louise was a 26-year-old New Yorker returning to Alabama to visit her declining 72-year-old father.
Knowing of Lee’s own personal history of leaving the South in 1949 to pursue a writing career in Manhattan led to the conclusion that Watchman would be as autobiographical as Mockingbird, in which Ms. Lee had acknowledged in the early 1960s that her character Atticus Finch was inspired by her real-life lawyer-father, Amasa Lee, and whose setting (the fictional Maycomb, Alabama) and supporting cast came almost directly from Harper Lee’s Monroeville, Alabama, childhood.
Eager readers assumed the unassailable Atticus of Mockingbird would remain so in Watchman because Lee (despite being a recent stroke victim whose current mental soundness has been debated) would never authorize any new book that would diminish the public’s appreciation for her patron-saint father, Amasa/Atticus.
In Watchman, upon returning home to Maycomb, the adult Jean Louise suffers a rude awakening when she learns Atticus has joined the local Citizens Council, whose purpose is to stop (or at least slow) the desegregation movement fueled by the Brown vs. Board of Education decision (the case handed down in 1954 in which the U.S. Supreme Court overruled its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which had held that segregated schools were constitutional so long as they were “separate but equal”). The civil-rights efforts happening post-Brown in the state of Alabama were being led by NAACP members who Maycomb’s residents believed to be far too aggressive.
In Watchman, Jean Louise simply cannot understand how Atticus, the enlightened lawyer who had done such a gallant job of representing an African-American man (later identified as Tom Robinson in Mockingbird) falsely accused of raping a young white woman; who’d always been respectful to Maycomb’s black residents; and who forbade her to use the evil N-word, could join the bigoted council.
Atticus further disgusts his daughter by refusing to embrace Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal” (though the slaveholding, slave-impregnating president had issues of his own regarding the gap between his talk and walk on the subject of civil rights).
As an honorable person and ethical lawyer, Atticus knew he had to do the right thing in Mockingbird by providing vigorous legal representation on behalf of Tom, an innocent man who could very well hang for a crime he didn’t commit. In Watchman, however, Atticus finds himself in the 1950s amid a less-than-life-and-death racial-conflict situation, and believes that any segment of society attempting to affect instantaneous, full-scale integration at that time (long before 1964’s passage of a potent Civil Rights Act) was asking for a disastrous second post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Therefore, as a responsible citizen mindful of the fallout that had occurred during the first Reconstruction, Atticus felt the need to be an active force in slowing the pace of the advancement being advocated by the NAACP. For him, the only legal vehicle available to the people of Maycomb capable of slowing the effort of rapid racial integration was the Citizens Council.
Also in Watchman, Readers learn from Dr. Jack Finch, Atticus’ brother, that Jean Louise’s dad had joined the council in the mid-1950s for the same reason he’d briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan as a young man: to learn who the ringleaders were and what their agenda was. Upon discovering that the local Klan’s Wizard was a minister and that the group’s agenda was violence, young Atticus had immediately severed ties with the group.
A society’s making significant transformation is an historical process that takes huge amounts of time, and individuals’ metamorphoses are no different. Thus, the statements made by Atticus to Jean Louise in Watchman about African Americans’ inadequate educational achievements and poor voting decisions likely matched up with the words John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (the mid-20th century’s leading presidential civil-rights champions) would have used in their own private conversations.
Critics of Watchman who have demonized the 1957 version of Atticus do so because they’re projecting 2015 racial sensibilities onto a mid-1950s man. There is no evidence to support JFK or LBJ’s ever having privately or publicly endorsed the NAACP’s agenda for rapid racial integration in the 1950s. Thus, if Atticus’ statements in Watchman make him a racist, then, by today’s standards, during their careers as senators, Kennedy and Johnson were also racists.
Still, according to a July 11, 2015, article in the Washington Post by Jennifer Maloney and Laura Stevens, it appears that, like Atticus Finch, Amasa Lee once disfavored rapid desegregation, but then had a change of heart. Whatever brought that change about, by the late 1950s, Amasa had gotten aboard the high-speed integration train.
This father’s moral transformation surely had a positive effect on his relationship with his high-minded author-daughter, and surely impacted her decision to portray Atticus more favorably in Mockingbird than she had in the earlier Watchman. After painting him so heroically in her (up until now) only published book and seeing Gregory Peck enhance the public’s appreciation for him in the movie, it’s understandable why Lee has repeatedly said that, in Mockingbird, she’d said “all she had to say” about her father, who died a few months before the film’s premiere in late 1962.
The timing of Watchman’s publication in 2015 is perfect, as was Mockingbird’s in 1960; look no further than recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and elsewhere for evidence that modern-day America is as volatile on the subject of contentious race relations as was the fictional Maycomb: “Sittin’ on a keg of dynamite,” with people in both places “fightin’ to protect their identity.”
During two turbulent eras in our country’s history, with tempers flaring over civil rights, both books emphasize the need for empathy, calm, and humility if people are to have any hope of developing a harmonious relationship with one another. In Watchman, tough but wise Uncle Jack opens Jean Louise’s eyes to the reality that her initial angry refusal to even consider her father’s perspective makes her as much of a bigot as she thinks Atticus is; he likely had an off-book conversation with Atticus to the same effect.
Jack encourages his niece to strive to gain at least some understanding of Atticus’ position and also to regain her emotional equilibrium. She then heeds her uncle’s advice, and after recognizing and almost respecting her dad’s different political/moral positions, she and he then find a way to look each other in the eyes and affirm their love and respect for one another.
Harper Lee’s words in Watchman, in fact, reiterate for all readers a need for such open-mindedness and understanding:
- “A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s better to know them.”
- “Hypocrites have as much right to live in the world as anybody else,” particularly since “men tend to carry their honesty in pigeonholes.”
- Ideological conflict is “like an airplane. One side is the drag, the other is the thrust, and together they can fly — though too much of the thrust makes it nose-heavy and too much drag and it’s tail-heavy — it’s a matter of balance.”
Perhaps the best part of the real-life Lee family saga came toward the end of Amasa’s life, when he received his final moment in the sun. As Mockingbird rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in the summer of 1960 (where it would remain for 80 consecutive weeks) and Harper Lee was telling the world that her father was the model for Atticus Finch, ecstatic readers poured into Monroeville, seeking the autographs of both the author and her dad.
Until the day he died, each time Amasa Lee was handed a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird to sign, the name he wrote was “Atticus Finch” — a man redeemed from his past prejudiced attitudes by his own conscience and by his powerhouse daughter’s appreciation for his having made that transformation.
Without knowing the full story contained in and around Go Set a Watchman, admirers of Harper Lee would never have gotten to know how her imperfect father, as portrayed in her second book, evolved into the flawless Atticus Finch of her first.
Talmage Boston is a shareholder in the Dallas office of the Winstead PC law firm and author of Raising the Bar: The Crucial Role of the Lawyer in Society (TexasBarBooks 2012), the first chapter of which is titled “The Timeless Inspiration of Abraham Lincoln and Atticus Finch.” Since 2010, he has given speeches all over the country on the subject “What Lawyers Can Learn about Professionalism from Atticus Finch.”