This post is part of our Harper Lee Reading Day: a celebration of one of the most surprising literary events of our lifetime, the publication of her new book, Go Set a Watchman. Check out the rest right here.
For only a few short months, the literary world has been set ablaze with the news that we were going to receive a follow up to Harper Lee’s iconic and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Over the weekend, however, it felt like that fire had been momentarily stamped out when news came out that the beloved Atticus Finch, a paragon of liberalism, was a racist segregationist in Go Set a Watchman. Personally, I was disappointed, but to less severe of a degree than that of my colleagues and friends. I liked To Kill a Mockingbird but I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it as a book that changed my life. I appreciated Lee’s language and characters. And frankly, any story that shows how awful the justice system is towards people of color is quite all right with me.
But more than that, I perhaps didn’t care so much about Atticus Finch being a racist in the new book because liberalism is not synonymous with tolerance. Yes, Atticus Finch was able to show that Mayella’s rape was not Tom Robinson’s doing. However, just because Finch defended a black man for a crime he did not commit does not mean that he cared to have him, or any other black person for that matter, in his space. It’s kind of odd, isn’t it? You tend to experience some kind of cognitive dissonance with this idea because we’ve been conditioned to believe that every liberal is accepting of all kinds of people, which is entirely not true. In fact, the argument could be made that because white liberals place themselves on a high pedestal, they are replicating uneven power dynamics, which allows for racism to reveal itself in another form.
Nowhere in To Kill a Mockingbird did we read Atticus Finch inviting black people into his home for dinner and card games. Nowhere in the novel did we read him advocating for civil rights and the respect for Black lives. What white liberals tend to forget, both those of the past and present, is that we are all products of our environment, no matter our political inclinations. Atticus Finch was still a white man from the south. We all have assumptions about race that we need to unravel and correct. The problem with liberalism is that often times the ideology influences us to believe that we are above an issue, so much in fact that we ignore it altogether. When we ignore the issues at hand, we ignore the underrepresented voices who experience these societal problems.
On a smaller scale, maybe Harper Lee is teaching us all a lesson: kill your faves. Your faves aren’t as great as you think. When you begin to idolize a character, you set yourself up for great disappointment. Role models are influential not for their exemplary behavior, but rather the mistakes that they have made. Question your favorites at all time. Allegedly, before his passing, Dostoyevsky was going to make the benevolent Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov a more sinister character in another novel. We can’t be so loyal to a character that we can’t expect for him or her to change. Static characters aren’t interesting, are they? We need to know about the twists and turns of their lives and that involves personality development. Although traditional novels tend to consist of constructed plots, remember, we are just readers. We aren’t the authors so we control nothing. At times, even the authors can’t tightly control their own creations, either.
I’m still going to buy Go Set a Watchman because I want to see how Atticus Finch came to be who he is. Remember, Lee wrote this novel before To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t want to simply read press releases and discard what might be another seminal work. I don’t want to picture him as simply a spittin’ racist who points his finger at all the darkies around town. That’s a caricature and an unfair portrait of any human being. It could be argued that To Kill a Mockingbird was a novel that made low-key racist white people to feel good about themselves for saving the day, yet again. White guilt can be pretty damning and all the more infectious at the same time. And who knows? Maybe Harper Lee wanted to depict Atticus Finch’s duality in order to hold a mirror to white America.