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!