cricketmuse

a writer's journey as a reader

Atticus: Racist or Realist?


The hub-bub about Go Set a Watchman seems to have dissipated, much like a thunderstorm that rumbled ever so much and offered only a spate of rain. Basically, Harper Lee’s “second” novel wasn’t as refreshing as anticipated.

Did Watchman change your opinion of Atticus? image: USNews.com

First of all–lots of skepticism precluded its arrival as in how did Lee not remember it even being around? Why did it suddenly get found after Alice (sister/lawyer/protector) passed away? Why was there an elder abuse investigation following Lee’s decision to publish the manuscript? There was also trepidation at her request of having it published “as is.”

Watchman arrived early July and now as we roll into September there are few comments left to make. Actually, I don’t recall too much buzz in July. The overall feeling I have gathered is a “meh.”

There seems to be a consensus that this novel is basically a draft and that the “good” parts were plucked away to create Mockingbird. Given time and an editor’s guiding hand, Watchman could have been the novel we all anticipated.

That’s not my main concern–that is, the quality of the writing. Lee’s talent for characterization and dialogue, along with her penchant for subtle wit still shines.

My intention is to un-besmirch Atticus’ reputation. Since so many are in agreement that Watchman is unpolished, I’m surprised that so many are quick to judge Atticus as a racist. My belief is that he is a realist, not a racist.

For one, Scout, as a girl, never heard racist remarks from her father while growing up in the Finch household. She even says so as she has her showdown with him towards the end of the book. Jean Louise, the grown woman, even clobbers Atticus with the hurled comment how he raised her to be color-blind, to look at a person’s heart more intently than their skin color. Even Uncle Jack couldn’t argue with that argument.

Another point made is how Atticus refuses to get riled at Jean Louise’s verbal scathing of him being a hypocrite. He knows he isn’t one, so he doesn’t get offended. His reason is logical, one of his strong suits. He attends the meetings Jean Louise deems as KKK because he wants to know who is behind the sheets. Just because he attends a meeting doesn’t make him a believer. Just like going to the gym doesn’t make a person fit and healthy. Atticus is a savvy lawyer which means he looks into all angles of the case in order to be prepared to sway the jury. In this version his young Negro client is acquitted–would a racist truly want that to happen? That verdict was very unusual for the times and only someone who believed in justice could have been able to have justice served out. Obviously, this outcome changed in Mockingbird, making it even more heart-rendering that Atticus’ strength as a lawyer, with all the obvious right on his side, couldn’t sway the jury.

Another consideration is that Atticus, a man of influence, lives in a small town. He is wise playing his hand close to his chest. He can’t offer a voice of reason if he is seen as having “gone to the other side.” Atticus, having served in the legislature, knows the value of being a politician, that saying one thing and believing another, and making others believe in what he wants them to believe, is imperative to getting votes for projects and issues of concern.

There is one other point that people misinterpret. When he says the Negroes (the coinage of the times) aren’t ready to go toe-to-toe with the whites and doesn’t want them getting all stirred up by outsiders, he isn’t patronizing–he is functioning as a padre, a fatherly-minded protector.  He knows they aren’t ready due to inexcusable education deficits, that equality doesn’t happen overnight. Atticus is all about justice, and justice is not served if the playing field is heavily encumbered by advantages not given to the other players.

Wait, one more something. Harper knows how to put punch into her titles, just ask any ninth grader who has been given the task to analyze To Kill a Mockingbird. Mockingbird carries many meanings. Go Set a Watchman is along the same path. The title refers to Isaiah 21:6 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” To better understand the verse and what the watchman is seeing read the passage entirety. The passage speaks of the grievous pain caused by treacherous dealers. War is soon coming and the setting of a watchman will inform what is happening. Atticus is that watchman. He is set to report all that is approaching. The watchman is a trusted position. Atticus is that watchman for the South, and its upcoming changes. Lee knew Atticus could be trusted to report the truth.

Realizing there is a bit more to the racist or realist idea than just forming an opinion, I dug up some interesting research. Give these links a try and determine for yourself about Atticus and his stance:

Are you a racist quiz (take it as if Atticus might–even in Watchman mode (how well did you read the book, between the lines, y’all?)

Psychology Today article on racism.

In Mockingbird we were dazzled by the paragon of virtue who wore a three-piece suit of justice; in Watchman we realized he puts that suit on one leg at a time.

So, what do you think–is Atticus really a racist after all?

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2 thoughts on “Atticus: Racist or Realist?

  1. I’m steering clear of the book. Not sure I want to spend the time on it with so many others to read. So I guess I won’t be weighing in on this one.

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