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Atticus Finch Is not a “Bad Guy” in Go Set a Watchman

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This one has been a long time coming, folks. I apologize for the lack of timeliness and the length, but there is a lot to say. Here we go!

The day before Go Set a Watchman hit shelves, I was in a department store waiting in the checkout line, only to overhear the woman in front of me talking about the book.

“They say it isn’t any good,” she said. “Atticus Finch is a bad guy.”

Not only is that a very poor way to evaluate the merits of a book, but it simply isn’t true.

As I began reading the book, I was very skeptical, having read several clickbait headlines and the articles they represent. Eye-catching one liners, such as “Atticus Finch is a racist who attends Klan meetings,” “Atticus Finch is a fallen American hero” and “Death of the white savior,” painted an appalling picture of this “new” Atticus.

But I was determined to keep an open mind.

The first few chapters felt like Harper Lee. Her style was very prominent in the text, despite significant differences from Mockingbird, such as the shift from first person to third. Jean Louise was a very believable portrayal of an older Scout. Atticus felt like the Atticus we have known for decades – calm, patient, understanding.

However, it wasn’t long before Jean Louise discovered a pamphlet titled The Black Plague and then proceeded to witness Atticus and her fiancé, Hank, attending a Citizens’ Council meeting. This is definitely a turning point in the book, as Jean Louise begins to reflect on the family and town she remembered from her childhood.

It isn’t until the end of the book that Jean Louise confronts Atticus and Hank about their actions in a climactic scene that spans multiple chapters.

You can debate whether or not Atticus Finch is a racist in Go Set a Watchman (not that I believe he is), but I don’t think you can make a successful argument that says he is a “bad guy,” as my fellow shopper suggested before the book came out. At worst, he’s simply a product of a different era.

Let’s debunk some of these clickbait headlines that really played up the negative aspects of Atticus’ character, shall we?

Did Atticus attend a Klan meeting? Yes, he did, when he was a younger man. Out of context that sounds atrocious. In context, however, it is a different story. Why did he attend this meeting? Hank enlightens us:

“You know why he joined? To find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks. What men, what people. He went to one meeting, and that was enough.” (229) “…there wasn’t any cross-burning, but your daddy did and still does get mighty uncomfortable around folks who cover up their faces. He had to know who he’d be fighting if the time ever came to – he had to find out who they were…” (230)

This is clearly a situation where context is everything. Several news sites reaped tons of traffic based on half-truth headlines and articles touting that “Atticus Finch is a racist who attended a Klan meeting.” Is it true? Yes. But it is only a negative when taken out of context, as many articles did when promoting their website’s content.

It isn’t long until Atticus shows up and sends Henry on an errand, and he engages Jean Louise in deep, thoughtful conversation. Atticus proceeds to say some very eye-opening things that sound unequivocally racist to modern ears. But we must remember, this was written nearly six decades ago, when an open mind looked much different than it does today.

Before we begin discussing Atticus’ speech, let’s analyze his character, both in Mockingbird and up until this point in Watchman. He has always been patient, kind and tolerant. He had never said an ill word against anyone of any race, nor met anyone with ill intent. I find it best to judge his statements and actions based on his previous character, rather than a reviewer’s outraged interpretation.

Atticus begins his alleged racist tirade with the following statement:

“Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?… 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?… You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?”

On the surface, especially to modern ears, this sounds horrendous. But let’s look at it. Atticus never refers to Negroes in general. He only refers to what he is familiar with: Negros in the South. The story thus far (as well as history) has shown us that while there many educated African American individuals during this time, very few resided in the South. Atticus’ agenda doesn’t seem to be to prevent blacks from receiving the “responsibilities of citizenship” indefinitely, but rather to slowly implement such rights so as to prevent a course of problems in the interest of doing the right thing.

His qualm furthermore seems to be with the federal government and the NAACP trying to right a situation they know nothing about. Atticus admits to being a snob about government with a desire to be “left alone to manage [his] affairs in a live-and-let-live economy.” (244)
But he goes on to say even worse things:

“Do you want negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world? (245) …”Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children” …What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction… “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ‘em voting than ever before.” (246-247)

Again, words to stun the modern reader. But let’s examine this again in the most charitable way, leaning as far as we can towards Atticus’ previous character.

Once more, he never refers to “Negroes” in general, but always the Negroes in the South – because that’s what he is familiar with. Try to read these passages without an accusing eye or hateful tone. Imagine that “carloads” of white Southerners from the 1950s were suddenly mixed in with English, Irish or even a Northern American society. Would they stand out? Would people stare? Would England’s Prime Minister be rushing to grant each one of them full citizens’ rights without question? Being from a somewhat Southern state myself (KY), I can attest to how much we Southern folk stick out when we travel even a few hours north. Diversity is beautiful and extremely important, but differences also make people nervous, especially in the beginning of such a large movement as anti-segregation.

What about the bit about Negro children dragging down white schools? Again, I don’t think this is a stab against black people, but more a stab against white people who have held them down – at least beneath the surface. What would happen if several black students, coming from subpar schools with out-of-date textbooks and underpaid teachers, were abruptly put into white schools? Would it drag the white schools down? Most likely, no. Due to their previous education, which in that time period was unfortunately significantly below nationwide standards, black students would likely struggle to adjust, both academically and socially, and possibly never reach their full potential.

In making the “in their childhood as a people” comment, Atticus isn’t saying something derogatory, but rather making a social statement about how he has witnessed black people in the community grow. “They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ‘em voting than ever before.” This dialogue says to me that not only is Atticus in favor of blacks obtaining citizenship and full rights, he just wants to do it in what he believes is the right way – with the patience we have come to know from his character. He believes that installing rights too quickly or all at once could cause serious problems along the way. He knows the “Negroes of the South,” as well as his neighbors and their views towards them. Atticus would rather implement a slow and steady means to the desired end, with as little violence, confrontation and governmental upset as possible.

To be honest, when I finished Watchman the first time, I was quite confused. Did I just read the same book that spawned the accusatory articles I had heard about? I immediately began to read reviews and articles about the book, but this only deepened my confusion. I just didn’t see what others were seeing. Atticus didn’t seem to be a racist or a bigot, but more a kind, patient, flawed, yet open-minded man of his time and place (the 1950s in the South). Upon my first reading, and even more so after a thorough analysis, I thought the plot centralized around Jean Louise’s misunderstanding of why Atticus was at the Citizens’ Council meeting, which ultimately led to the destruction of her father’s God status and the birth of her own conscious (hints the title, Go Set a Watchman).

In the end, their disagreement didn’t seem to be that Atticus was a racist and Jean Louise wasn’t. In my eyes, they were in favor of the same outcome, but their disagreement revolved around how to get there.

I welcome everyone’s thoughts in the comments section below!

Go Set a Watchman – Not a Sequel, a Glimpse at the Literary Process

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Despite my most diligent efforts to avoid spoilers online, I caught a glimpse of a few Go Set a Watchman leaks. Namely, these two: “Atticus Finch is a racist and Tom Robinson was acquitted.” In my opinion, as far as Mockingbird is concerned, one of these is just as false as the other.

I think there is a good reason for these inconsistencies. To Kill a Mockingbird was written after Watchman, at the suggestion of someone affiliated with publishing. In other words, as Lee wrote Mockingbird, no “fictional truths” were in place to govern the rules of the book.

She was at complete literary freedom.

Regardless of reviews and astonishing headlines, I don’t fault Harper Lee at all. I still think she is an amazing writer and Mockingbird will continue to be one of my favorite tales. Facts, characters and more can change from draft to draft – that is especially true when jumping from manuscript to manuscript.

Let’s try to put this in perspective.

Have you seen the Back to the Future trilogy? In part two, remember when Biff steals the sports almanac, takes the DeLorean back to 1955 and gives it to his younger self? This created a parallel, alternate timeline, as explained by the thick-tufted Doc Brown himself.

Think of Watchman like that. Being written before the classic we have all come to know and love, what was true in that book did not have to be true in Mockingbird. As far as Lee was concerned, she was writing a different novel, governed by a different set of truths, completely unaware that anyone would ever set eyes on Watchman.

This inconsistency created the alternate timeline where Atticus Finch is a racist, Tom Robinson was acquitted, and Biff is corrupt, powerful and married to your mother.

I am still counting down the minutes to midnight, waiting to get my copy and start reading. I will definitely post a review once I finish the book. I just don’t want to jump to any out-of-context conclusions.

I believe I (and many others) can still enjoy Watchman, especially when you consider it for what it is: not a sequel, but a glimpse at the creative process that ultimately gave us the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic.

Lancaster House, by Taylor Dean: A Haunting Love Story for Valentine’s Day

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I picked up Lancaster House by Taylor Dean from the Kindle Store on a whim. I read the synopsis and thought it sounded like an intriguing “haunted house” story – plus it had a cool cover. I must say, I was not disappointed with my purchase. Lancaster House had twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and an intelligent, reliable, logical narrator – which is more than I can say for most paranormal romance novels that I’ve read. Yes, I said romance.

Allow me to begin by saying: I’m not a huge fan of romance novels. As a matter of fact, I loathe most of them. Not because I’m a heartless ice king, but because most romance novels are trite, formulaic tales that lack imagination. Romance is a hard genre to pull off. However, I love when romance is expertly woven into a story – which is the case with Lancaster House. Is it a romance novel? Yes. But there’s so much more going on beneath the surface.

Zoe Grayson, central character of the tale, is a 25-year-old independent woman who has recently lost her father and fiancé – her father to death, her fiancé to infidelity. She’s decided she has to move on, and therefore purchases an old Victorian mansion with tons of quirks and architectural oddities – very reminiscent of The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer and its film counterpart Rose Red.

The Strongest Points of the Novel

The strongest points are easily the setting and the development of Zoe. The setting was very well done. Taylor Dean constructed a house so vivid that it was easy to conjure images of the old Victorian and all its hidden rooms and stairs that lead to nowhere.

Zoe was real to me. She was so well-developed, with her own morality, philosophies, talents and flaws. She was logical and never made decisions that seemed ignorant or out of context. And that’s really my biggest beef with paranormal romance novels (especially Twilight): the central characters often make decisions that are convenient to the plot, but make no sense logically. Zoe did not suffer from this flaw. Her flaws were real-world flaws – a sense of detachment due to the loss of her father, a lack of trust due to experiences with past loves, and so on. Not, yes I want to become a vampire but marriage is such a big commitment.

The Weakest Points of the Novel

There was only one thing I would have done differently in this book. And that doesn’t mean that Dean’s choice was a bad one, it just means all writers are different. And isn’t diversity a wonderful thing? The story is framed by Zoe living in a mental health facility and telling her tale to her doctor. The framework is in third person, which is fine. But when Zoe starts to tell her story, she begins in first person and trails off in an ellipsis. The next chapter begins as Zoe’s tale, but it reverts to third person. I just would have felt more immersed in the story had it been in Zoe’s own words.

But that’s just me.

Overall…

Taylor Dean did a wonderful job in crafting Lancaster House. It brought me out of my element and got me reading a genre I’m not terribly familiar with. Bravo! This book was an easy 5 stars. I highly recommend it (only $2.99 on the Kindle store), especially for fans of romance novels. Well done, Taylor! I’ve already purchased the sequel!

About Taylor Dean

“Taylor Dean lives in Texas and is the mother of four grown children. Upon finding herself with an empty nest, she began to write the stories that were always wandering around in her head, quickly finding that she had a passion for writing, specifically romance. Whether it’s paranormal, contemporary, or suspense—you’ll find all sub-genres of romance in her line-up.”

Taylor tells me she wrote Lancaster House because of an agreement with her daughter, who is a huge Twilight fan. “Mom,” she said, “let’s both write a paranormal story and see what comes of them.” Taylor was reluctant to try her hand at paranormal romance, but finally gave in. I, for one, am glad she did.

50 Shades of Bateman

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Christian Grey of the hit series 50 Shades of Grey is a 27-year-old businessman, who is very wealthy, lives an extravagant lifestyle, and has overly-aggressive tendencies (especially towards women) that some would consider psychotic. Does that sound like anyone else you may have read about? Or watched in a movie? I’ll get to that in a moment.

I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t knock something until you’ve tried it (I know, dangerous statement in a blog that talks about a bondage / erotica novel). And literally everyone I know had a very strong opinion of 50 Shades of Grey, whether they loved it or hated it. So, I said to myself, “I want an opinion too. I want to see what all the hype is about.” So I read it. I regret it now, as that’s a few hours of my life I’ll never get back — but oh well.

I’d heard every argument, both for and against this book before sitting down to read it. Many feminist critics were against the series because it strengthens the portrayal of women as objects and gives the impression that every man, no matter how abusive, can be fixed. Many love it because it casts a mainstream spotlight on erotica. There’s nothing wrong with erotica, in my opinion, just so long as it’s well-written. (Key phrase: well-written.) Some people hate it because of its graphic imagery; some love it for exactly the same reason. But one trait pushed all of that out of my mind while I was reading, for at least a while.

Christian Grey is very similar to Patrick Bateman, madman and wealthy playboy from Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. However, I believe the character shows even more similarities to the big-screen adaptation of Bateman, portrayed by Christian Bale — possibly because more people are familiar with the film than the book.

Let’s do the list. Similarities include:

  • Christian Grey shares a first name with Christian Bale.
  • Both characters are 27 years old.
  • Both lead extravagant lifestyles due to a very fine career in business.
  • Both have psychotic tendencies, disturbing obsessions, and inflict crude sexual acts on women.
  • Both mask their psychotic behavior with a very professional appearance.

It got to where I was expecting Christian Grey to “return some video tapes” at any moment.

I am in no way implying that Christian Grey was derived from (or even inspired by) Patrick Bateman. I’m merely pointing out a few similarities that I found striking and interesting. It was these similarities that got me through the book. I realize the characters aren’t identical. The above traits just caught my eye.

I now have an opinion: I am not a fan of 50 Shades of Grey. In my opinion, feminist critics hit it spot on. I felt the book cast women in a very negative light, was poorly written, and lacked a logical, intelligent narrator. It’s like how plot, acting and execution (more often than not) don’t matter in porn. All can be terrible and the movie can still accomplish its goal. But 50 Shades of Grey was erotic, to say the least.

But that’s just my two cents. Read it for yourself if you haven’t already (I realize I’m late to the party).


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