Back in 2012, I wrote an essay that called into question the typical reading of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch as an “unambiguously heroic figure.” At the time, I was concerned with navigating the conflict between my affection for my own hometown and my distress at its problems with xenophobia. My own uneasy conscience and sense of being morally compromised by my affection for Murfreesboro allowed me to see Atticus’s role in Harper Lee’s Maycomb in a different light. His identification with a prejudiced society puts him in a morally tenuous position. By putting Atticus on trial, I was implicitly weighing my own options for being faithfully present in a broken place.
The main charge I made against the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird is that he is insufficiently radical in his opposition to Maycomb’s racism:
He is at home in a society that most of us today would find unimaginable, in which racism is implicit in every social interaction…. He believes that the racism embedded in Maycomb’s society is wrong, he desires reform, and put in the right position, he gives his utmost to achieve it. But Atticus is ultimately accepting of Maycomb with all of its flaws.
This apparent complacency, this reactive posture towards injustice, is often condemned as harshly as injustice itself. In my essay, I referred to the quote that I’ve seen displayed in more than one social justice center: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
On the contrary, I argued that by compromising his personal purity in order to understand Maycomb and reform it from within, Atticus is choosing the lesser evil:
[T]his sin may be—if not justified—at least redeemed by its role in correcting and edifying the culture. Certainly the alternative, to disown and abandon Maycomb, would be both uncharitable and unlikely to improve it. Maycomb without Atticus would be a darker place.
This focus on redemption rather than purity acknowledges that every course of action has its moral perils, and we cannot “live in history without sinning.” So while the ends may not justify the means, they should determine them. In my closing statement in this first trial of Atticus Finch, I wrote: “We can learn, if not to endorse, then to accept the imperfections and injustices that we cannot change, at least not overnight. We must be willing to accept brokenness, because distancing ourselves from it completely makes us powerless to engage it.”
Although I argued that Atticus should be acquitted in that trial, the unexpected publication of Harper Lee’s second Maycomb novel, Go Set a Watchman, presents a case of newly discovered evidence. And in his second trial, Atticus faces even more serious charges.
Set roughly twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s new novel focuses on a week spent at home in Maycomb by Atticus’s daughter, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now 26 and residing in New York City. One early reviewer of Go Set a Watchman set the tone for all subsequent commentary with an unqualified declaration that in this new novel, “Atticus is a racist.” She continues, “Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father, who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion, has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies.” Indeed, Atticus is leading Maycomb County’s Citizens’ Council, which is organized to resist the federal government’s efforts to desegregate their local institutions.
Many readers have balked at the suggestion that the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman and the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird are the same character. At first glance, it does seem impossible that he should go from defending Tom Robinson to defending Jim Crow in twenty years. And of course, the suspect history of the text itself, as well as some unavoidable continuity problems between the two novels, support the case for reading the two separately. Unfortunately, I would argue that there is no fundamental discontinuity with respect to Atticus himself.
I think this issue comes into focus in the last third of the book when Atticus and others close to him attempt to explain his position to a horrified and angry Jean Louise. Atticus is operating under the belief that the vestiges of a Jeffersonian Democracy are being swept away by an overreaching federal government and that making common cause with racists is the lesser evil in the face of this political catastrophe. Various characters offer rationalizations of his behavior that closely mirror the argument I have previously made in defense of Atticus’s solidarity with the people of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird (what some have less charitably characterized as his “overwrought compassion for his racist white neighbors”).
For example, Henry Clinton, Atticus’s protégé and Jean Louise’s love interest, asks her, “Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?” Here, as in my own argument, compromise is a prerequisite to effective activism. Likewise, rejection and denunciation are not always the right strategy for undermining your opponents: “A man can appear to be a part of something not-so-good on its face, but don’t take it upon yourself to judge him unless you know his motives as well…. A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them.”
The question is how we can continue to celebrate the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird while opposing the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman? How can we distinguish the two cases, acknowledging the power of gentle persuasion and the virtue of friendship with sinners but rejecting these principles when they are offered as rationales for segregation?
I think that Jean Louise gets it partially right when she reminds Atticus that the ends do not justify the means: “You are using frightful means to justify ends that you think are for the good of the most people. Your ends may well be right… but you cannot use people as your pawns, Atticus.” This time, Atticus has not only put his own conscience at risk, but he is actively endangering and injuring others. “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” More to the point, Atticus is pursuing an end that is unworthy of the moral compromise it requires. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus compromises his personal purity to uphold the moral law. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus compromises the moral law to uphold a mere political theory. The logic of solidarity in community for the common good may be the same, but the ends to which it is directed are radically different.
For those of us who have long admired Atticus, his characterization in Go Set a Watchman is hard to swallow. But as Harper Lee would have it, the hope for Atticus and those like him remains the faithful presence of the clearer-sighted: “[T]he time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.” Atticus needs us now more than ever.