We watched the movie in my junior year of high school, but I managed to avoid reading To Kill a Mockingbird until college. I still have the copy somewhere, but it chose this moment to vanish in the of way loose change and stray socks. I thus write without the benefit the text on hand or illustrative quotations. Please let me know if I’ve gotten some of the details wrong.
Both times I encountered Mockingbird, my teachers handed Atticus Finch to me as an anti-racist hero. If he waged a doomed, futile battle against the power of white hatred, then at least he struggled nobly in doing so. The student should feel the force of Atticus’ awesome virtue, thundering off the page in Gregory Peck’s voice from the center of the Earth. He exists for us to admire and emulate, made more of high principles than flesh and blood. Like most students, I went along with the story. I remember it engaging me fairly well in watching the movie. I found the book a bit slow and underwhelming, but then saw nothing in it that led me to reconsider Atticus the Righteous. The focus, both times through, fell less on character analysis and more on the evils of the Jim Crow South.
In subsequent years I thought little about Mockingbird. Then I read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on the book back in 2009. He brings to mind what I had long found the most memorable scene of the story:
In the middle of the novel, after Tom Robinson’s arrest, Finch spends the night in front of the Maycomb jail, concerned that a mob might come down and try to take matters into its own hands. Sure enough, one does, led by a poor white farmer, Walter Cunningham. The mob eventually scatters, and the next morning Finch tries to explain the night’s events to Scout. Here again is a test for Finch’s high-minded equanimity. He likes Walter Cunningham. Cunningham is, to his mind, the right sort of poor white farmer: a man who refuses a W.P.A. handout and who scrupulously repays Finch for legal work with a load of stove wood, a sack of hickory nuts, and a crate of smilax and holly. Against this, Finch must weigh the fact that Cunningham also leads lynch mobs against black people. So what does he do? Once again, he puts personal ties first. Cunningham, Finch tells his daughter, is “basically a good man,” who “just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.” Blind spots? As the legal scholar Monroe Freedman has written, “It just happens that Cunningham’s blind spot (along with the rest of us?) is a homicidal hatred of black people.”
Leaders of lynch mobs, like the rest of us, do have their blind spots. In calling faults blind spots, we both universalize and trivialize them. Everyone has one, so we must all have come by each innocently. Proclivity to lynch becomes a personal quirk, like not caring to shake hands or having an annoying laugh. Atticus shamed and stopped the mob, but he also defended them.
One can argue that Harper Lee meant for us to read the scene as subtly impeaching Atticus’ character, but if Mockingbird gave any sign of such an awareness then I don’t remember it and have not seen it brought out in any of the recent articles I’ve read on the subject. The unwavering voice of righteousness thus tells us, through Scout, not merely that lynchings just happen but also that essentially virtuous people conduct them. In this light, we should consider whether or not Atticus intervened because he believed in Tom’s innocence alone. Had his client been guilty, our hero might have stayed home.
Or we might have seen a different tableau. The night falls and Atticus takes Scout and Jem to the jail. There the sheriff contrived to find himself elsewhere. Perhaps he “forgot” and left the door unlocked. In some real world lynchings, law enforcement actively and visibly cooperated. The Finches could arrive to see Tom hauled out not for the clean lynchings we see in fiction but one of the grotesques actually practiced. The mob would beat Tom, of course, but his torment would only begin there. They could stab and violate him with a red-hot poker. Given Tom had, to the mob’s mind, sullied the purity of white womanhood they would likely castrate him. Then he would go over a slow fire, screaming all the way. The members of the mob would come forward and collect cherished souvenirs: fingers for the quick and lucky, plugs of flesh for others. The town would have a picnic.
Atticus could treat Scout and Jem to lemonade. He would tell them in a voice on loan from Gregory Peck that sometimes one had to do these things. The mob had a duty, just as Atticus had had a duty to defend Tom imposed on him by the court. Our hero might cause a stir by insisting that Scout have her picture taken with the burned body, a privilege normally reserved for boys. Here too, by the code of Jim Crow, he would demonstrate his virtue.
I have not followed the dispute over whether Harper Lee really wanted the novel she originally submitted to the publisher released. She chose otherwise for fifty years. I do not plan to read it. But like everyone else, I’ve heard that it casts Atticus as a member of the Klan for the well-off white professional and a diehard segregationist. I understand the shock and dismay for those readers who grew up loving and inspired by Atticus. From what I’ve read, the adult Scout shares it. But I don’t see the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman as fundamentally different from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Twenty years of narrative time could change people, but I don’t remember any evidence in Mockingbird of Atticus challenging Jim Crow. He has empathy, but largely for whites. Black characters exist to demonstrate his virtue. They know their place and rise to pay homage when he passes.
We can ask how could the Atticus of Mockingbird defend white supremacy. We might better ask how he could do otherwise. We should understand, if not excuse, him and his author as a product of their times. We should understand that Watchman Atticus has lived in the pages of Mockingbird these fifty years as well.