Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a great piece of American literature, even beyond its status as a quintessential “Bildungsroman” of the sort not found in the hammy contents of most children’s books today. Published in 1960, it was a surprisingly forward-looking examination of Southern society and the infectious nature of racism.
Despite the immense success, Lee avoided the public spotlight for the better part of the past fifty years, and even stated that she would never write a second book. That said, most were surprised by the news of a sequel to the classic, based on an even earlier draft, entitled Go Set a Watchman and published this summer. There has been plenty of suspicion about the extent of the reserved 89-year-old author’s consent to such a release, but that is only half the controversy.
The plot of Go Set a Watchman returns Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now a young lady of twenty-six, from New York City home to Maycomb, Alabama, only to find the racial prejudice within her old community exacerbated by the desegregation efforts of the federal government. The apparent complacency of her lawyer father, Atticus, in the face of these attitudes — despite the uncolored commitment to justice that made him a hero — destroys Scout’s confidence in the world she knew and loved.
Unfortunately, it had this effect on the fans of To Kill a Mockingbird as well. One political cartoonist re-branded the novel, “To Kill a Role Model.” Many Americans concurred. Even Scout, meant to represent the reader’s sensibilities now as she did in the original, angrily calls Atticus a hypocrite.
But to what extent is Atticus “dead” as a role model? Is it realistic to assume that a character who was once one thing is now the opposite?
Rather, to the discerning reader, Atticus’ hypocrisy is of a certain type, perhaps even benign. The very soul that fought to save Tom Robinson from the mob also feels that he must fight Washington and the NAACP. This is to say, he is unceasingly devoted to defending the downtrodden, but he does not support the shifting of institutions by outside agents.
Here the reader is free to infer whether Atticus feels this way because he is a bigot with an inconsistent heart of gold or, more realistically, he holds the opinion that abrupt change against a delicate backdrop actually tends to invigorate the evils that it means to correct and, well-intended or not, may run counter to the Constitution. Given the explicitly political territory that the novel breaches — several points are made of the Tenth Amendment and the Supreme Court — this is not an invalid interpretation. Even Scout confesses thinking that perhaps, for the place and time, the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
In reality, the most questionable actions for which the novel centers on Atticus — besides having a racist pamphlet in his reading pile and being in the presence of an outlandishly hateful demagogue at the local city council meeting — include admitting he believes that blacks (in the 1950s South, that is) are not yet ready for full interaction with the entrenched, privileged classes. Being more of a comment on the state of the Southern status quo than on the worth of African-Americans as human beings, this is actually quite consistent with the Atticus we know from To Kill a Mockingbird. We are just shown him with greater complexity.
At one point, when Scout is searching for answers, her uncle Jack (Atticus’ brother) tells her:
For years and years all that [the white man] thought he had that made him any better than his black brothers was the color of his skin. He was just as dirty, he smelled just as bad, he was just as poor. Nowadays he’s got more than he ever had in his life, he has everything but breeding, he’s freed himself from every stigma, but he sits nursing his hangover of hatred…
From reading Scout’s separate conversations with her uncle and her father, one can infer that, drawing from their immense knowledge of human history and folly, both male figures believe in defending institutions not merely for the sake of the institutions themselves, but to prevent harm to others by the very nature of how humans react to change — be their skin black or white — despite their shared entitlement to the blessings of liberty.
For this reason, Uncle Jack adds:
The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in. The only thing in America that is still unique in this tired world is that a man can go as far as his brains will take him or he can go to hell if he wants to, but it won’t be that way much longer.
Atticus later echoes these sentiments, citing his distrust of government as his motivating force. His “hypocrisy” therefore lies, perhaps, in the human ability to separate one’s personal beliefs from one’s legal beliefs, when necessary. Many an American, after all, supports the rights of others to engage in activities which he or she personally abhors. Indeed, this is the foundation of a liberal society. Such “hypocrisy” is not only feasible; it is necessary to being a good citizen.
The U.S. Constitution, a great thing for and beyond its time, was not created by men who agreed with each other on every moral bullet-point. Rather, it was forged in the channels of compromise. The Founders were principled men, but had each and every one fought tooth-and-nail for his mind to be made the law, there would be no “last best hope of earth.” And they accepted this. Why shouldn’t we?
Here should be noted some of Atticus Finch’s most famous words — not from Go Set a Watchman, but from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Government is our modern equivalent of a very big man with a very big gun in his very big hand. No matter the institutions in which you reside, if your idea of positive change is to foster the threat of force against your fellow citizens, then courage is not in you.
After all, preventing evil does not always require pointing a gun in its face. And that’s a good lesson in any book.