OP-ED | Harper Lee Brings Older Atticus to Life Within Historical Limitations
If you’ve been reading about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, you have surely heard several disturbing things about the 72-year old Atticus Finch. He’s attended a Klan rally, he possesses racist literature, and he’s a segregationist. I’d also point out that Atticus has crippling arthritis that makes him unable to perform simple tasks like buttoning his shirt or handling kitchen utensils. Throughout the novel he frequently asks Jean Louise to drive him places because he can no longer manage the steering wheel of a car. This is not an insignificant detail nor a digression on my part.
Unlike some of my English teaching colleagues, I am not surprised by Lee’s portrayal of Atticus in Go Set a Watchman. Nor do I find her portrayal of Atticus inconsistent with her portrayal of him in To Kill a Mockingbird. The difference is twofold. One, we see him in a later historical context, and two, we see him not through the eyes of an adoring child but through the eyes of a 26-year-old college-educated woman now living in New York.
Some context is also in order for the more shocking revelations about Atticus.
Atticus, Uncle Jack, and Henry Clinton each explain to Jean Louise that Atticus’ attendance at a Klan rally 40 years ago and his possession of racist literature were primarily fact-finding missions, attempts “to know who he’d be fighting if the time ever came.” When Jean Louise asks Atticus how he can sit beside virulent racists on the segregationist Citizens’ Council, Atticus answers that his presence prevents them from enacting their more abhorrent ideas.
But make no mistake: Atticus is a segregationist. However, I find this completely consistent with the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. The Atticus of both novels possesses a sense of noblesse oblige, a belief in his God-given responsibility to take care of those lesser than himself — notably “Negroes” but also poor whites, children, and women.
Early in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus surprises Henry Clinton when he agrees to defend Calpurnia’s grandson, Frank, in a case of drunk driving and manslaughter in which Frank hits and kills a white man named Mr. Healy, who also was drunk. Henry doesn’t think Atticus would take on such a case any more, but Atticus insists that “we” must continue to take such cases — “we” must continue to take care of “our” Negroes — because if we don’t, outsiders like the NAACP will step in.
This might not seem like the Atticus who defended Tom Robinson when he was falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell, and in fact Jean Louise gets furious with Atticus because she assumes he took the Robinson case for the right reasons and is taking Frank’s case for the wrong reasons. But, in fact, Atticus took both cases for the same reasons — his obligations to maintain social order and to maintain the social order.
Jean Louise is shocked by her father’s apparently new attitude, and says to herself, “Many times I have seen him in the grocery store waiting his turn in line behind Negroes.” But that’s exactly the point. Atticus also would have held the doors for women and pulled out their chairs, gentlemanly gestures but patronizing ones that suggest, “Here, let me do this for you since you are unable to do it for yourself.”
Back to Atticus’ arthritis. Quite simply, this crippling condition is a symbol of what has happened to Atticus. Literally and figuratively, he has lost his hold on things. History has outpaced him and he is no longer in the driver’s seat. This is why he and Jack explain that Jean Louise must become the Watchman. Jack says to Jean Louise that her disappointment in Atticus stems from the fact that she fixed her conscience to his, and now that they diverge, she is feeling the pangs of birth into her own adult self. Jack also tells her that she must return to Maycomb and live among her friends and family because it is not when they are in the right that they will need her, but rather when they are in the wrong.
In this way, Lee does not destroy our beloved Atticus by betraying the man he was, but simply shows the historical limitations of his views, and passes the torch onto the next generation to become the conscience for the future.
Jason Courtmanche is the Director of the Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut, where he specializes in teacher education, composition, and American literature. He taught high school English for 12 years. He can be reached at his blog.
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