Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise


The final tableau of To Kill A Mockingbird has always given me a sour feeling toward the book—it ends with the black man dead, the poor white man also dead, the law uninterested in prosecuting their murders. The white gentleman and his children are sadder and wiser, but the wisdom imparted is essentially about the hopelessness of defending black people and poor white people from one another. I used to think Mockingbird was a shameful book to hand out in a high school classroom, all things considered, given that it’s a race story that scarcely passes the black-person version of the Bechdel test. It’s about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves.

So, when the news broke about Go Set a Watchman’s Atticus being racist—in contrast as people said, to Mockingbird’s Atticus, I went back to read both books, wondering: hasn’t it always been this way? Hasn’t he always been racist? As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in the New Yorker, his defense of Tom Robinson is based on segregationist principles—he works for “accommodation, not reform.” The new book gives the impression that Lee knew what much of her audience didn’t: that her character’s principles didn’t constitute justice. By itself, I thought To Kill a Mockingbird was a racist book. Now, with the publication of Watchman, it stands to be redefined as a book about racism not just in Maycomb County, but within the Finch household itself.

Here’s something I didn’t remember. In Mockingbird, when Atticus first tells Scout that he’s taking on the Tom Robinson case, he talks about the nobility of fighting for a lost cause. “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started,” he says, “is no reason for us not to try to win.”

Scout replies, “You sound like Cousin Ike Finch,” referring to Maycomb County’s “sole surviving Confederate veteran.” Within a few pages, she adds, “Cecil Jacobs asked me one time if Atticus was a Radical. When I asked Atticus, Atticus was so amused I was rather annoyed, but he said he wasn’t laughing at me. He said, ‘You tell Cecil I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin.’”

Helfin, of course, was a white supremacist senator and member of the Klan.

Throughout Mockingbird, Atticus is engaged in the foundational moonlight-and-magnolias Southern delusion that so swayed Ashley Wilkes and Ellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. He fought with the genteel cruelty of the slaver, in service of the other American dream, which is the idea that a man can be the ultimate patriarch: the cultivated master of the lower orders, the head of a family that extends through his wife and children down through the slaves. Everyone but the patriarch, it’s assumed, is slowly developing out of moral infancy—and as such, the patriarch is charged with leading everyone in religion, work ethic and cleanliness. Atticus is the son of slave owners, and he’s acting the part of one when he argues that Tom Robinson is from a clean-living family, and the black servant Calpurnia can be trusted raising white kids—this is the race equivalent of chivalry, the imperiled pedestal.

In the slaver’s dream, black people would never be abused, at least not as the slaver sees it—only mutilated into permanent children. From that perspective, it seems especially sinister that To Kill a Mockingbird is such popular reading for high schools. It’s about powerful white people being very polite—and that counting as good politics, without any charge or assertion that anything might really change in the power structure of the town. Atticus is canonized as the ultimate “good white person,” whose ostensible goodness hides the fact that they’re overly comfortable with the way racism has positively structured their life.

In many ways, Atticus’s subtle racism in Mockingbird is the story’s brilliance. Go Set a Watchman, in comparison, is unsubtle—but its passion and roughness are its charm. Where Mockingbird is polite, Watchman is rude. And Maycomb deserves some rudeness. In Watchman, Lee quits being subtle about sexism, too. Tomboy Scout has grown up to be Jean Louise, the kind of woman who jokes about her period and offers to have an affair with her boyfriend rather than committing to marriage. Her boyfriend watches her sleep and thinks “he was her true owner, that was clear to him.”

And there was foreshadowing of this, too, in Mockingbird. Atticus lets his young daughter run around in overalls; he doesn’t force her into dresses, because he is a good dad. He understands that she’s a serious person, but when Scout voices her indignation that women aren’t allowed to serve on juries, Atticus says, “I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried—the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.” He’s a good dad, a good patriarch—but he’s raising Scout into another version of permanent childhood. He doesn’t think a woman has the moral capacity of a man.

Scout’s brother Jem echoes this in Mockingbird with his taunts that Scout is “so much like a girl it’s mortifyin”—by saying, “being a girl, girls always imagined things, that’s why other people hated them so.” Atticus brings this idea into his defense of Tom Robinson: Mayella Ewell is a girl who imagines things. If there’s any ambiguity about the natural extension of Atticus’s beliefs, when Jem burrows into his anger, he says Mayella Ewell is surely lying about being raped by Tom Robinson because for rape to count “you had to kick and holler, you had to be overpowered and stomped on, preferably knocked stone cold.” Rape is only rape if there’s visible proof. Girls, being girls, imagine things.

Little girl Scout, in Mockingbird, watches the women discuss the Tom Robinson case over coffee and has some inkling that their hypocrisy comes from a comparative lack of power rather than bad character. With its bolder strokes, Watchman shows Jean Louise in a similar and more significant encounter with Calpurnia. Jean Louise begs her to speak freely about her family legal troubles. Calpurnia can’t tell the whole truth about Atticus’s sense of “justice.” What the Finches saw as Calpurnia’s loyalty was mostly a reflection of their power over her and her family. With Atticus more adamant about his segregationist beliefs, Calpurnia is constrained from telling Jean Louise any truth at all. Integrity and honesty are shown in Watchman to be mainly for the powerful.

By then, Jean Louise has grown up thinking that she’s entitled to to keep her own counsel. It’s the paradoxical dream of chivalry that an intelligent woman bursting with integrity will agree with everything her man says—when Jean Louise disagrees with the way her male relatives talk about the inferiority of their black neighbors, her uncle slaps her across the mouth and calls her a bigot—a bigot!—for not listening to him. Jean Louise isn’t perfectly not-racist herself, either, but she comes a lot closer than the rest of the white Maycomb set to understanding the web of power they’re caught in. Her boyfriend points out that Jean Louise wouldn’t be allowed her sexual freedom and outspoken eccentricities if she were related to anyone considered trash; this, rather than indicting her, successfully argues against the system.

Here’s another thing I didn’t remember: out of the first six pages of Mockingbird, five of them are details of the Finch family pedigree. The book never frees itself from the idea that each person is only as good or bad his family tendencies. The Ewells are trash, the Haverfords are jackasses, the Finches hold back from exercising their full powers of superiority right back to Simon Finch, who saved his money, kept only three slaves and lived frugally. In Watchman, Jean Louise says her hometown boyfriend is as much “her own kind” as possible, but her aunt Alexandra disagrees—her own kind isn’t only cultural, it’s genetic. His ancestors aren’t as fancy as hers, so his inherent trashiness makes him a weak potential husband.

It sounds like a class distinction, but ultimately it’s about genes; it’s another form of purist, racially-inflected thinking. Interestingly enough, Jean Louise in Watchman is the only character out of either book who pushes strongly against these ideas of fixed microscopic divisions; in Mockingbird, Scout tosses around as many of the “he’s a Ewell, so he’s unclean” explanations as anyone else.

Watchman, in young Scout’s progression, still shows the promise in Atticus’s flawed views. Jean Louise got free from the determinism espoused by her family and Maycomb itself. She did this because she believed in Mockingbird Atticus—and crucially, grew up to see his limits and transcend them. We can do the same, as readers. Scout turned into Watchman’s brave twentysomething who yells at racists, flings her falsies at the war memorial and gets the next train ticket out of town. High school students reading Mockingbird will have a better chance of transcending Atticus’s genteel situational fight against prejudice only if their teachers are equipped to teach the book that way.

In 2005, Jane Smiley wrote:

We can see why the civil rights movement in the United States had to be instigated and led by black people themselves—even the most well-meaning white people (Atticus Finch is the model) didn’t have the understanding and the will to break up the status quo and reimagine American life as socially, culturally and politically as well as legally egalitarian. The virtue that Atticus represents—respect, and especially respect for privacy and eccentricity—is a virtue that makes change more difficult because it fails to question social forms that, Lee shows, are a significant part of racism.

This is why Go Set a Watchman is a gift, however unethically brought to the public. Mockingbird Atticus is too easy to read as virtuous—a brave individual, not strong enough on his own to make any headway against inequality. The truth is that he never meant to.

Catherine Nichols is on Twitter.

Image via Universal

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