I was skeptical when news first broke that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-shelved novel, would be published. Lee has famously refused to let her manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, ever see the light of day.
Why did she change her mind? Did she change her mind? Given her advanced age and failing health, people are concerned she’s being taken advantage of. While I know people who can’t get past those concerns, I’m willing to proceed as a reader; an independent investigation involving two Alabama agencies has found her competent to make decisions about her work.
Now as the book is being released and reviews begin to surface, people are nervous for a new reason: apparently this novel does not measure up to the near-perfection of Mockingbird. And perhaps more heartbreakingly, neither does Atticus. It seems unthinkable that a man who would single-handedly take on the Alabama justice system on behalf of an innocent black man would attend a Klan meeting, or denounce the Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.
But I say: bring it on.
Don’t get me wrong. I condemn the sin of racism, collectively, individually and in my own heart. I don’t relish an Atticus Finch who harbored paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans in the South, or fretted that white schools would decline in quality once they were integrated.
I don’t delight in such a portrayal of Atticus, and will likely read the book with a sick feeling. But I suspect 2015 America needs this Atticus. I’ll be reading the book, not as a novel, but as an historical document. Go Set a Watchman gives us a peek into the mind of a young, inexperienced writer who would go on to write the Great American Novel. But more importantly, it will give us a glimpse into our own soul as a nation.
We’re struggling with a legacy of racism in this country. Condoleezza Rice, no bleeding-heart liberal herself, has called racism our country’s “birth defect.” The last several months have revealed to many of us what others have known their whole lives. So now what? We need to be talking to one another about this legacy. It’s painful and important.
But how? We can start by being honest about our history, ourselves, and yes, our heroes. The problem is, we like our heroes untouchable. We want Atticus to have “cute” flaws, like exasperation over Scout’s mischief, or a nervous fumbling with his eyeglasses as he shoots a rabid dog. But Atticus, at least as Harper Lee envisioned him, was a complicated, deeply conflicted man. How do his (considerable) blind spots in Watchman influence how we understand the whole character?
In my tradition, and many other Christian traditions, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe in the communion of saints.” What do we mean by that? Presbyterians don’t have an elaborate process of canonization like the Catholic Church. Rather we believe in a “great cloud of witnesses,” people who’ve gone before us who have shown us what it means to live faithfully and well. We call them saints, even though not a single one was perfect—indeed, many of them were deeply flawed indeed. And yet occasionally, they got it right. Beautifully, shiningly right.
Atticus may still be that kind of saint for us—not because of his racist tendencies in Watchman, but despite them. If it were not so, would there be hope for any of us? Our ability to succeed and thrive as a nation depends on imperfect people coming together around a painful conversation and movement: warts, flaws, biases and all. I have them; apparently Atticus had them too.
As Dorothy Day has said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” An Atticus as preserved in Mockingbird is so perfect as to be unreachable. An Atticus whose story straddles the two novels is like us. And in aspiring to be our best selves, we can be like his best self. When the heavy machinery of upbringing and personal comfort and culture grinds against what’s right, we can stand up. We must.
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