When the Mighty Fall

My admiration for To Kill a Mockingbird began in high school. It was one of the first books that made me fall in love with the rhythm of words. My love grew to obsession when I had to teach the novel year after year to my students in English II. Rather than analyze characters and plot elements, I used TKAM as a way to teach LIFE--to focus on the value of courage, equality, innocence, justice. Like many well-meaning teachers, I placed Atticus Finch on a pedestal as the literary hero who emulated all of these qualities. I would often tell my students: Be Atticus. I would often ask myself: What Would Atticus Do?

As a teacher, I've read TKAM an estimated ten times, but it's also imprinted on my writer DNA. I have parts of it memorized. When I'm stuck in the mire of my own writing, I open to a random page and let Harper Lee's words remind me of why I string words together to make a sentence-- a paragraph--a page--a book.

Like so many fans, I was THRILLED when I heard about the release of Go Set a Watchman. I thought I'd never get the chance to read another book by Harper Lee, so this surprising news felt like a gift from a literary Santa Claus. But then the speculation started: Was this really a "lost" manuscript that was "found?" Who found it? Why now? Is Harper Lee in her "right mind" to make the decision to publish? Is she being taken advantage of by greedy lawyers and publishers? 

I always told my students that in order to have a valid opinion, they had to read a book for themselves. Despite all the controversy, I decided to read Go Set a Watchman and draw my own conclusions.



But then a few days before the book's release, the news came that rocked me to my core: In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch is a racist.  

NO. IMPOSSIBLE. NOT MY ATTICUS. 

This shocking news caused me to question if I should read the book. I didn't know if my heart and mind could handle this kind of Atticus. Not my hero. But I remembered what Atticus said to Scout: 


So I dove into the book to draw my own conclusions. After finishing it on Sunday night and thinking about it for the past two days, I've concluded that everyone needs to read this book--especially in these tumultuous times. It's important to remember that GSAW came FIRST and is obviously raw Harper Lee, so it doesn't have the same fluidity as TKAM. There are flashes of her brilliance (especially in the childhood scenes between Jem, Dill, and Scout), but there are also painfully awkward parts that should have been cut.The conclusion of GSAW won't leave you with that feeling of standing on Boo Radley's porch when Scout sees her neighborhood from a different perspective--enlightened, satisfied, aware. When I came to the end of this novel, I felt uncomfortable. I felt confused. I had more questions than answers. And maybe that was Harper Lee's intention.

GSAW raises some essential questions: What happens when we put people on pedestals, and they fall flat on their faces? What happens when we realize that someone we built up as a god is actually a flawed human? How does a person grow her own conscience--separate from her father? These are the questions that grown-up Scout (aka Jean Louise) struggles with, and she is just as appalled by this version of Atticus as I am. There should be some comfort in this shared shock, but I find it heartbreaking.  In fact, I think the true hero of this book is Scout, and maybe she's been the hero all along.

It made me cringe to read of this older Atticus; there's no denying that he is a racist. My heart hurt from hammering in my chest--every beat an emphatic NO. But I kept reminding myself that Atticus is not a human. He's a fictional character. Who was my hero. Can he still be?

Some will argue that GSAW should have never been released because it "tarnishes" our vision of Atticus, the hero that so many readers put on that pedestal of perfection. But I think we have to look at Atticus in the context of our world and realize that we all fall short of this ideal. It's easy to criticize fictional characters, but when we hold up the mirror to ourselves, which Atticus do we see? Our public face can be the Atticus of TKAM, but the truth buried in our hearts might tell a different story. 

That is why I want the world to read BOTH books. And then acknowledge that we've got both sides of Atticus in all of us. 

I found a brilliant article by Sam Chaltain that beautifully explains this duality. I implore you to read it here. He writes: 

"So we are all Atticus Finch. We have beauty and prejudice and ignorance and complacency and privilege and compassion and the chance to do something or nothing. We can be forces for good or a silent and gradual force for community decay and destruction."

Because we live in complicated times, we need to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about race. Discomfort is the first step towards change. It starts with me. Which Atticus will I choose to be?

If you teach TKAM and/or a fan of Harper Lee, watch this video. It is worth your time. 

Comments

  1. We need to remember that WATCHMAN was written first. The pedestal Atticus was on in that book was the one Scout put him on. It is entirely credible that a motherless young girl would be devastated when she learns as an adult that he was not the god she thought him to be. Lee obviously re-thought the character she created in MOCKINGBIRD two years later. SHE changed HIM--for the better, not the reverse.

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