Please Note: Spoilers!
Many years ago, I saw the movie (1962) on TV with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford as Scout and Jem, and Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. (Any movie with Gregory Peck (or Cary Grant) is a movie worth watching, in my opinion, and To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) was no exception.) With all the hullabaloo with the release of Go Set a Watchman (GSAW) by author Harper Lee, I decided to finally read TKAM.
I had read online in a couple of different articles that, in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch was a racist. One article in particular blasted Atticus’ attitude through TKAM as a white man’s paternalistic attitude. I wanted to immerse myself in Scout’s world before going on to read GSAW and to look for signs of paternalism and racism in TKAM. Since it had been years since I watched the movie, I wondered if maybe I had missed something when I had seen it. I was also interested in seeing if there was a thread of consistency between the two novels in Atticus’ character.
When I picked up my TKAM from the library, one of the regular librarians assisted me. As he checked the book out to me, I explained that I was reading the book for the first time in preparation for reading the sequel. He forcefully instructed me to not read GSAW. He then told me that Atticus Finch in TKAM had been his hero growing up, and that GSAW was not nearly as well written as Lee’s first novel. I told him that I had read that criticism of her writing elsewhere. I mentioned to him that even her publisher had sent GSAW back to Lee, asking her to write about Scout’s young life instead. To Kill a Mockingbird was the lovely result. In any case, I had to read TKAM so I went home with the book and began to read.
A couple of things stood out to me. Although I looked for signs of white man’s paternalism in TKAM from Atticus Finch, I found no evidence of that. I am a white woman, so take my opinion for what it’s worth: just an opinion. Atticus Finch treated everyone with respect in that novel, no matter what their station in life and, even more amazingly, no matter how they treated other people. He understood that people were a product of their environments. Some people had hard lives and hard situations that, even when the other people are at their worst, deserve our respect and sympathy. Whether it was Bob Ewell, Nathan Radley, or Mrs. Dubose, it was Atticus Finch’s compassion for others that made him the least paternalistic or racist person on the planet.
I did discover one instance of a paternalistic attitude, but it wasn’t towards any of the African Americans in town, it was towards women. In one scene, Atticus jokes with Jem that the reason that there are no women on the jury is because “I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried—the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.” That was the only instance that came close to any of the -isms, but it would not be enough to convince me that Atticus was sexist. That was not really one of the issues meant to be addressed in TKAM anyway; it would have been racism, if anything.
Another thing I noticed is that Lee took pains to say at least twice in clear writing that the reason why the townspeople were unhappy with Atticus Finch is that he had committed the unforgivable act of wanting to defend Tom Robinson. Yes, Atticus had been appointed, but he wanted to serve as a defender of Tom Robinson. When Tom Robinson was shot trying to escape, it was Calpurnia and Atticus who went to Mrs. Robinson’s home to deliver the bad news. So, no, I do not believe that Atticus Finch is in any way, shape, or form racist nor displays white man’s paternalism in TKAM.
What really struck me about TKAM was how much of the book went to talk about the games that the children played. The children Jem, Scout, and Dill work themselves up to be scared of the secretive Radley family next door and scheme to get a closer look. All three take turns make up games during the three summers that they shared together. I’m guessing that at least a third of the book is about the games that the children played.
I liked that the book was written from Scout’s point of view. Children are more innocent, especially in the mid-1930s when this story was set, and see things more clearly, without as many prejudices that we have as adults (although definitely more imagination). I found it to be a believable filter for the story because children can notice things as they are more than adults.
I also noticed that Harper Lee’s birthday was 1926. That means that, during her childhood years, she would have been about the same age that Scout was when the story takes place. Makes me wonder whether anything like this happened in her life that she saw.
When I turned in TKAM, the librarian whom I saw was not there. I didn’t see him until a few days later. I told him what I told you here. I find it hard to believe that the Atticus Finch in TKAM would have suddenly become all sorts of racist by the time GSAW takes place. If Atticus is actually portrayed as racist in Go Set A Watchman, then they can be treated as two different books.
I still plan on reading Go Set A Watchman, but my expectations are that the writing will be poorer and the characters different.