Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “racism”

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?

Reading Challenge #44: Go Set a Watchman


‘Go Set a Watchman’ will land at No. 1 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list. (Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)

BEWARE: UNINTENDED SPOILERS AHEAD

No matter your opinion about Harper Lee’s “latest” novel, here are some stats from USA Today that can’t be ignored:

  • Publisher HarperCollins says more than 1.1 million copies of Watchman have sold so far in print, e-book and audio formats (the audio is read by Reese Witherspoon), making it the fastest-selling book in company history.
  • Barnes & Noble says Watchman‘s first-day sales surpassed that of any other adult trade fiction title, including Dan Brown’s 2009 novel The Lost Symbol, the previous record holder. B&N said it expects Watchman to be its best-selling book of 2015. (B&N declined to provide sales figures.)
  • At Amazon, Watchman has been the No. 1 best-seller in print since its release, and is also No. 1 on the Kindle Best Sellers list. (Amazon updates its lists hourly.)

I have been following most of the media blitz on Lee’s novel, ever since the hint that a second novel was “found.” I say most, simply because saturation was reached around June. I am a devoted To Kill a Mockingbird fan, who not only reads the novel once a year (or tries to), but teaches it most enthusiastically to ninth graders (when assigned that grade), so mention of another Lee novel definitely set my little heart pitter-pat.

And then the barrage of concerns floated about in the Net:

  • it was found after Lee’s sister Alice passed away
  • Lee resides in an assisted living home, having suffered a stroke, and suffering from hearing loss and macular degeneration gives speculative thought how coherent she really is
  • lawyers, editors, publishers are not in absolute agreement in exactly how the manuscript was found
  • many longtime residents, friends, and others who know Harper Lee were concerned enough about her being possibly coerced into consent that an elder abuse complaint was filed
  • not too many of my fellow Book Boosters have blogged reviews about the book

A lot of deep hmmm-ing took place over the subsequent months as I anticipated the novel’s well-awaited debut. I kept tabs on most of the articles and opinions that surfaced, although, as stated, saturation did preclude any deep dwelling, especially as speculative opinion was fast becoming redundant.

I deliberated continually of whether or not I would read the novel. My inner dilemmas ping-ponged accordingly:

  • why risk ruining the high opinion of TKAM?
  • why not risk it?–there will forever be the wanting to know.
  • read it and determine an opinion before others ruin the reading experience.
  • why should I let others sway since they usually don’t?

And so it went, until finally in June I called up the local library and asked to be put on the waiting list. I figured it would be December before it would be my turn. I received the book two days after it became available. Okay, just because it’s on hold doesn’t mean I have to read it. As I checked it out I noticed no other date stamps.

“I’m the first one to read it!”

“We ordered a stack of them. You’re the first to read this one.” Okay, Earth to special patron status. But at least it was in my hand. I asked my library kindreds if they had read the book.

“I had it in hand, and decided not to.” A non-com shrug from the other librarian. Great. I’m really in quandary now. Then again, who knows when I will read it once school starts. Summer is my reading season. Once school starts it’s back to reading essays.

Watchman stayed on my shelf for three days before I actually started it. A conversation with a fellow TKAMer teacher prompted me to actually open the book.

“There is a chapter that will take your breath away.”

“Which chapter?”

“You’ll know it when you see it.”

I started the book at 4:30 pm and finished it by 9:30 am. I did stop to sleep. Barely. And yes, the chapter mentioned did take my breath away. I knew it when I saw it.

So, as I read Watchman I jotted down notes:

  • For those who believed Harper Lee’s gift to the literary world, actually world in general, was a one-shot wonder–then this novel proves them wrong. Lee is an amazing craftsman, especially if this was a draft and not a final manuscript.
  • this novel stands on its own merit
  • the shadows of TKAM flit about the periphery, yet are only fireflies of reminiscence and are not needed to provide the illumination to the contents of Maycomb
  • Lee’s writerly brilliance shines in mundane moments, such as the Coffee episode, where she compares the bits of conversational banter to the scales of a piano as she played hostess with refreshments
  • Lee totally had me scrambling on more than one vocabulary word and allusion reference: Asquithian? Arriviste? Childe Rostand?
  • Highlight passages include:
    • “Although it was four hours away, she could hear her aunt’s sniff of disapproval.” (in reference to wearing slacks instead of a dress when arriving to Maycomb)
    • Uncle Jack’s explanation of the Civil War as related to the bubbling pot of politics and social norms being upsided in the South during the fifties/sixties

And this brings me to the SPOILER ALERT

  • There are issues that are still relevant fifty years later which aren’t being fully understood.

Here goes:

Being a Northern girl by way of the Pacific Northwest I am clueless about the South, and from time to time have to get edumacated by the MEPA, who was raised in the South during the fifties and sixties. He doesn’t read TKAM or The Help–he lived it.

One of the biggest concerns about Watchman: Atticus is portrayed as a racist.

This is where I heartily disagree. At one point, Jean Louise, follows her father and almost-fiance into a Council meeting. It’s just short of a Ku Klux Klan gathering. Jean Louise is physically sick that the two men who are most significant in her current life are lapping up racial rantings. Her world is shaken and she just about wipes her feet of Maycomb to leave her childhood home forever. Uncle Jack sets her straight with his quick synopsis of why the South went to war.

The book is powerful in its advocacy of accepting, not just tolerating, people for being people. Jean Louise is so disillusioned by what she sees as her father being a hypocrite she can’t abide looking at him in the face. She realizes she was raised to be color blind, she sees someone, not their race. Powerful stuff.

When she finally has her showdown with her father, she verbally berates him for undoing all that she has learned from him. She upbraids Henry, her hopeful fiance, as well. What she learns, and what Lee provides us, is a peek behind the curtain when it comes to Southern way of thinking. Atticus states he attended a KKK meeting because he wanted to know who was behind the sheets. Henry says he can do more good if he garners the trust of the people who know him. Maycomb is Maycomb. Basically what is being said is the time-honored strategy of getting inside the system to change the system. While it appears as racism to Jean Louise, it’s really savvy coping strategy. 

The MEPA reiterated Henry’s explanation to Jean Louise: to live in a Southern town means getting along with the town, even if comes across as being in alignment with their opinions.

When reading all the negative reactions to the book, I think readers are missing that point. Atticus is not a racist; he is a realist. He sees what the South is and where it needs to go and how it will get there. He still believes in justice, he still believes in equality–he believes in waiting. He is still Atticus. He hasn’t changed. Jean Louise has, and she acknowledges that painful discovery.

Overall, I am impressed with Watchman. It’s a stand alone novel, and I can’t help wonder what would have happened if it had been released earlier, about fifty years earlier. I have thoughts on that, and might expand on what just might be a conspiracy theory.

If you are on the fence about reading Watchman, I suggest you jump down and get a copy and read it for yourself. If you have read it, I hope you will dialogue with me.

Do you believe Atticus comes across as a racist, or is he actually a realist?

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