So, all lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird — I know there are a lot of us; it placed first on PBS’s Great American Read last fall — did you realize that not everyone admires Atticus?
Learning that Atticus Finch, the book’s hero, has critics came as a surprise after I finished my umpteenth reread of Harper Lee’s 1960 classic early this month. The last time I reread Mockingbird, I followed up by reading Scout, Atticus, and Boo, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication. Estimable people like Anna Quindlen, Tom Brokaw, Scott Turow, and Andrew Young submitted grateful essays about what the novel means to them.
This time I followed a rereading of the novel with the anthology Critical Insights: To Kill a Mockingbird. Edited by Don Noble, a professor at the University of Alabama in Lee’s home state, the 2010 collection naturally includes a range of opinions. A couple of the essays discuss the reevaluation of Atticus — not for the better.
How can anyone but a racist find fault with Atticus Finch, narrator Scout’s lawyer father, who challenges the prejudice of his small Alabama town in 1935 by defending a black man accused of raping a white woman? Widower Atticus is also heroic as a father as well as a lawyer — kind, patient, respectful, treating his children as capable of having intelligent conversations.
According to Critical Insights, it was the left that first gave Atticus an unfavorable second look. In the 1990s critics started to see him as passively acquiescing in the status quo rather than actively championing racial equality. Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson; he never asks for and in fact had hoped he could have avoided such an incendiary case. He tells his children that a member of a mob that tried to lynch Robinson is basically a good man with blind spots. About his racist community, he says, “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”
Other than this forced-upon-him case, Atticus hasn’t challenged the town’s attitudes. The critics note that he hasn’t done anything about the black ghetto on the outskirts of town, he hasn’t protested segregated seating in the courthouse, and, as a member of the state legislature, he has not introduced one antisegregation bill.
I admit that saying that a member of a lynch mob is a basically good man with blind spots is like Donald Trump’s saying there were good people on both sides. But in judging Atticus, we should be cautious about applying present-day attitudes to the small-town Alabama of 84 years ago. An aggressive civil rights crusader in 1935 Maycomb (Lee’s fictional stand-in for her hometown of Monroeville) would likely have been killed or run out of town. Lee would have had to write a different book.
If we don’t judge Atticus by the politically correct standards of 2019, however, what does To Kill a Mockingbird have to say to us today?
Think of how often we hear about black men released from prison after serving many years for crimes they did not commit before doubting whether To Kill a Mockingbird is still relevant.
As one who keeps returning to the novel and never tiring of it, I do see Atticus as heroic. He is reserved, not a firebrand, but he rose to the challenge presented to him. His attitudes were way ahead of most Southerners of the time, probably of most of the country. They are still ahead of the attitudes of some people I’ve known.
I won’t read Go Set a Watchman, which Lee wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird and hid away for more than a half-century until its 2015 publication at the end of her life. My reason is that it portrays Atticus, 20 years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, as an overt racist. That doesn’t sound like credible character development to me. I’ll continue to believe that Go Set a Watchman was a first draft rather than a prequel, that the manuscript was hidden so long because Lee didn’t intend it to be published, and that there was something untoward about its being published unedited seven months before she died.
SCULPTURES WRECKED BECAUSE OF “MISCOMMUNICATION”
Chicagoans have heard about murals being painted over or destroyed because graffiti-removal crews didn’t realize they were public art. To avert such accidents, the city in April launched a mural registry for graffiti busters to consult. Artists and property owners apply to register their work and receive an emblem to display on it.
Maybe there should be a registry for other forms of art, too. Columbia College says the sculptures in its small park at 11th and Wabash near my condo building were demolished due to “internal miscommunication.” The art destroyed included a popular sculpture by Ellen Nesvick of three werewolves standing on hind legs against a wall.
Demolition crews were sent to the park because Columbia is renovating it. A college spokesman expressed regret that the sculptures weren’t saved.
Neighbors I spoke with before hearing Columbia College’s explanation thought the public artworks were wrecked because they were somewhat vandalized. Greek statues without arms or noses are museum treasures; seems like commissioned outdoor art also deserves respect.
ANTI-TRUMP QUOTATIONS: 67TH IN AN ONGOING SERIES
“I would not have thought that I needed to say this. Let me make something 100 percent clear to the American public and anyone running for public office: It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a US election. This is not a novel concept.”
— Federal Election Commission chair Ellen J. Weintraub, about Trump’s saying he’d listen to what foreign nationals dig up on his political opponents