Razer on the so-called lost innocence of that hot liberal daddy, Atticus Finch

That I have not yet read Go Set A Watchman, released for sale today, is just a tiny detail and one that hardly disqualifies me, or anyone, from holding forth with an account of its quality. Copies of the prequel/sequel to Harper Lee’s extravagantly famous To Kill a Mockingbird have been extended in full only to a handful of critics of who nearly all have reviewed it favourably.

Thousands yet to read more than the first chapter, however, are terribly upset by its contents and so, of course, it would now be elitist to suggest that the masses are wrong and those fancy-schmancy New York reviewers are right. Careful reading of an entire text is no match for popular ignorance which currently has it that Miss Lee has let the side down and forced all those who so esteemed Atticus Finch to question their raisons d’etre.

Atticus Finch, as you likely recall, emerges in Mockingbird the novel as a gentleman lawyer idealised by his child and in the film, by way of Gregory Peck, as the sort of man that George Clooney and Jesus might reproduce during one of their regular meetings. To Slate, a publication that addresses over an entire piece the reaction of those who loved Atticus so well they named their boys for him, mother Becky Dennis sums up much of the anxiety that follows new revelations about Finch when she says, “He was such a strong force in my life growing up, reading it and re-reading it over the years. I’m always reminded that as long as there are people like Atticus Finch — even though it’s fiction — in the world, we should all be OK.”

In Watchman, as has been widely reported, Atticus no longer provides such comfort. The man who once so courageously, if unsuccessfully, defended Tom Robinson, an African Alabaman falsely accused of the rape of a white neighbour, is now an old prick. He grumbles to Scout, now 26, a New Yorker and fonder of her given name, Jean Louise, that “the negroes” have screwed up integration with their childish ways. Heck, he’s even been to a Klan meeting. These revelations have been sufficient to reveal admirers of Mockingbird less as literary connoisseurs than as fans of what has they have come to appreciate as a cartoon.

When author J.K Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay, when director Paul Feig announced that the cast of the Ghostbusters reboot would be all female and when the makers of TV series Supergirl announced that boy reporter Jimmy Olsen would be a few shades darker than illustrators at DC had originally drawn, those illiberal parts of the fandom lost their shit.

Now, it seems, it is the turn of nice, liberal white people to (Jim) crow about their personal pain. Of course, it’s fine to treat Lee’s work as one might a superhero universe and cry like a kid because the fictional thing you thought you could depend on has shifted. But what is not, in my view, forgivable is to read the very real, and continuing, history of injustice that informed a much-loved text as canon.

One cannot read Mockingbird, or its demanding new partner, in isolation from the conditions that produced it. Of course, we can say this with some degree of force about any book but it is especially true for one written about and released at the time of the civil rights movement. If there is an adversary in Mockingbird it is not personified like Voldemort. If there is a hero, it is not Atticus but a (still) slowly emerging justice. A particularly sloppy reading of Mockingbird might hold that it is Finch who is the saviour and Bob Ewell the Dark Lord. But the one I recall being guided toward at school was that myopic intolerance was the bad guy and that this, at one time or another, could reside in all of us. Even Scout must overcome her baseless aversion to Boo Radley.

And now Scout, or Jean Louise as she prefers to be known, must explore her aversion to her father. The appearance of this recovered manuscript means that Mockingbird’s fans, who are distinct from its more critical admirers, must do the same. While parents are fretting that they misnamed their sons and some women are fretting that Scout was an unreliable role-model as well as an unreliable narrator, little that was of any consequence to the author, an NAACP member, has really changed.

Claims that a new, racist Finch are “difficult” or that these represent a “lost innocence” strike me as abundantly stupid on two counts. First, have you read the fucking book? Yes, Atticus was thoroughly charming and I once used his name to describe my perfect partner on an internet dating profile. But to claim that the downfall of a fictional hunk could be a moment of “lost innocence” in an era that has produced the Charleston church shootings, the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson or the Baltimore protests seems, at the very least, gauche.

Certainly, we white people enjoy our fictional saviours of the downtrodden. With no real-life white champions of racial equality, we place our faith in Driving Miss Daisy or Dangerous Minds. Or The Help or The Blind Side or Cry Freedom. Or Gran Torino or Lawrence of Arabia or, well, you get the white saviour picture. Finch became, even if unintended by his creator, a symbol of first world benevolence and a hot liberal daddy whose world was exonerated for its creation of injustice by the fact that it has fictionally produced its liberator.

That Finch, and all of us, are fallible is not only consistent with Lee’s first published text but a great shove to those of us who erroneously supposed that liberation can be given and is not always taken. As the Reverend Al Sharpton said of the new, less glamorous Finch, ““Now to find out that Atticus Finch was not this statesmanlike racial hero, but was in fact portrayed at first by Harper Lee as racist in many ways, reflects the burden we’ve had in real life of the northern liberal who ended up being racist”.

This fictional twist, he says, reflects the reality of many white advocates for civil rights. Which is to say, once they were no longer valorised as benevolent saviours, they turned on the people they claimed to represent.

A post-Watchman Finch cannot, in any case, erase the painful truth that life as it is routinely endured by many black Americans has not meaningfully improved since the time of Mockingbird. To look at Lee’s text, as so many fans now do, and see it as evidence of “how far we’ve come” due, in large and imagined part, to the fictional efforts of white liberal hunks is a nonsense.

Even if Watchman turns out to be, in my view, not as impeccably written as the very palatable novel it would go on to inform, it is a very good thing that we can see that Atticus is as fallible as the system that produced him.

There is no innocence that can be lost here. Just self-congratulation by a white liberal fandom who, suffering this loss, can now get back to the important work of reading Harry Potter as a doctrine of tolerance.

Previously by Helen Razer  

State sanctioned gay marriage is defeat by assimilation   

Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson: the simpler baby of Auberon Waugh and Benny Hill

Gen X is culpable for its off-spring’s online vulnerability

Katy Perry, naked yoga and ridding yourself of the flab of social order

35 responses to “Razer on the so-called lost innocence of that hot liberal daddy, Atticus Finch

  1. This is something I have been wondering about. I was struck by a painting of Andromeda and the sea monster. Its the moment before Perseus arrives to save her. She is placed in the position of victim by social forces and then saved by a prince. There is a blessing that victims confer on their saviours. Then the victim conveys her or his virtues to the savior. The problem with Atticus is that he is not real. As Perseus, he is a mythological conveyance of blessing to a violent race, from its victim. However, where as before the two peoples are divided by violence, they are now bound together in mutual incomprehension, taking from each other what benefit they can. Like Yeat’s Leda, the Swan gives up something before ravishment is complete. This interface is perhaps as much compassion as most humans can comprehend for a being unlike themselves. We go on. Blacks say we steal all their stuff. Indeed we do. And in a profound sense, when we steal we give something up. Black music has almost completely replaced European styles. We give. We take. And we try to understand. But we are violent. And are pleased to take the advantages conferred on us by violence, no matter how confused that makes us.

  2. I picked up a second hand Gone with the Wind for $2 on some book fair, and delighted in the read. Margaret Mitchell was a ‘oncer’ in her lifetime having been fatally run over by an automobile (car) on Peachtree St in Atlanta I think in the 1940’s. Anyone who has been Atlanta would know that every second street is called Peachtree something…

    Atlanta is a place which I believe would have been better off had Sherman done a more thorough job and it had not survived to give the world a travesty like the 1996 Olympics…anyhow my memory of Margaret Mitchell’s oncer is of a profound and beautifully written social history of the South.

    GWTW should be read before Mockingbird with its admirable post-war liberalism of the ‘In the heat of the night’, Guess who is coming to dinner’ kind manifested in white support for the civil rights movement.

    American racism – prejudice against negroes is a strange and persistent thing. Presidents with liberal instincts like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt never came to terms with segregation, and the sainted Abraham Lincoln never lived long enough to deal with the aftermath of the emancipation. These great Presidents were always painfully aware that a vast majority their white electorates did not share their liberal instincts and they faced social warfare if segregation was outlawed. An early Lincoln wanted to free the slaves and then send them back to Africa by 1900. Liberia was the result of some who did.

  3. Anyhoo, you are right Helen, about wanting to put down autobiographical details because it matters. It provides context in the to and fro fights over a period of our histories here in Australia. How long we have been aligned to change?
    Assimilating facts. Staying clean and clear with juice in our authenticity about who we are and what we have fought for despite the ugly status quo.

  4. So when some people are fully tanked up with a large group of people behind them and start to chat “liberal” and cross that great divide between whoever thems and us are is really quite different from the social reality of people leaping out of hegemonies and saying NO.

  5. I bought a copy of A Death In Venice from a Uni second-hand bookstore recently simply for the copious comments made between the pages by its several student owners. They all appeared to be thoroughly convinced that Aschenbach was nothing but a paedophile… (?)

    I read Mockingbird only a couple of years ago and thought that the character Atticus Finch fell way short of a vehement supporter for equal rights – marching with Martin Luther King and Joan Baez would have been way out of his league. Perhaps if I’d read the story 40 years ago, I may have formed a more radical opinion.

  6. Clearly there are far more Posts on trivia issues than there are on Crikey’s “serious” threads,

  7. If the measure of an article or the author of such is to stir debate, remark or general discussion well I think enough said

  8. I read ‘Go Set a Watchman’ last night. I thought it was nowhere as good as ‘to Kill a Mockingbird’ – it was just OK, 3 stars. It was, in my opinion, too dialogue dominated. Nothing really dramatic or interesting happened.

  9. What I’m seethingly angry about is everything, including the publishing of this book.

    Without Harper Lee about all we can do is speculate, maybe GCAW represented her view and GKAM was a cheesy thing she was asked to write by her publisher.

    I loved GKAM but then I dig it when white dudes stick up for the underdog, just like I would, given the chance.

    1. Tony. You would be almost historically unprecedented in sticking up, as a white person, for black oppressed classes. Because we white folks so rarely do it. But like to imagine that we do, and so we write about it all the time.
      The story of how Lee was asked by her publisher to re-write GSAW and take elements of it that would become the idealised view of a child in TKAM is reported. Lee does not perform interviews but is still alive and has not contradicted the accounts by publishers of the GSAW manuscript and its transformation, which is retold in Kakutani’s review and elsewhere. Of course, Scout’s uncritical love for her father and the idea of a brave white man was a much better commercial decision than a book which is about an older woman’s disappointment at a father who became, as they all do, less-than-perfect. The story about how the work was transformed is fascinating and unlikely to be largely untrue. It shows how we white people love stories about ourselves and our bravery and our conviction that we would do something only if we could. Which we can, of course, but most often elect not to.

  10. I too haven’t read the sequel either, but I’m presently reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson. This book is his fight to give mostly black men ( and black women and black children) a chance of a decent trial while living for years on death row.
    As I read it, I thought this is the real sequel to Mockingbird.
    The original book has allowed white people in the US (and many other countries) to feel glad that Atticus has done it all for us.
    Another thought. We don’t have executions – but we have deaths in custody – and as far as I know, no police officer in Australia has ever been charged with murder except Hurley in the Palm Island death – and he was acquitted.
    PS Bryan Stephenson is Afro-American

    1. Totally, Lois. White liberals love to tell themselves they are the starting point for justice and not, in fact, the privileged by the force that most often prevents it.

  11. Helen,

    Having now read the whole of your article, I think I’m in broad agreement, thought it tends to ramble. One other thing: Shapton, of course, has form. He is a bitter and unrelenting racist himself.

    1. Always remember to blame the author for your impatience.
      (Maybe this is why Harper Lee chooses to talk to no one?)

  12. Thanks Helen. Things I am associating ~ in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook when her protagonist has a breakdown and goes all anti-Semitic.
    In a more contemporary vein, check out “the new gay marriage etiquette” by Dinesh D’Souza.
    I am not sure what to make of all this. Times can be challenging and it is brave to say no, I disagree, in search of common humanity what is being done is not right, it is wrong. We must stop this. Then there is the personal hurt when bad things happen to good people like abuse and breakdowns and bad laws.

  13. Go Razer!
    I love that you are.
    I’d like to throw my hat into the ring (the prerequisite seems to be: knowing something about the first book and not having read the yet-to-be-released one; tick).
    Is it crazy to think that fallible people are capable of perfect acts?
    I only ever meet normal people and mostly they have annoying habits, prejudices and smells. That doesn’t stop them from giving someone a chance just when it matters or stepping in to defend someone who’s copping it.
    I always hear about heroes; heroes are only that until you get to know them. (Schindler was a dixk to his wife and he failed to achieve much outside his one brilliant moment.)
    Anyway, I’ll just be reading the new book cause I liked Scout and I liked the lessons she chose to take from life.
    And I like it that people call their kids Atticus, why not, they’ve gotta name them something; beats the Roman thing of Primo, Secondo etc.
    (Unless it’s cause the Dad is called Attilio and the Mum is Cushla – so bad.)

  14. Thanks Helen.

    Hey guys, let’s all fire up about a book/film/artwork/judgment/policy that we haven’t read or seen and know nothing about apart from what someone said about it on Buzzfeed!

    Sounds awesome. Opinions rule the waves. Dickheads unite.

  15. Could Helen Razer please explain what she means by the following sentence: ‘Claims that a new, racist Finch are difficult or that these represent a lost innocence strike me as abundantly stupid on two counts.’ Does she mean, ‘Claims that a new, racist Finch IS difficult …’? If not, then what? There seems to some deep confusion in this sentence.

  16. Dear Ms Razer,
    You may well be aware that the title is a biblical quote- Isaiah:20.6. It is part of a passage predicting the fall of Babylon or maybe it’s the invasion by the Assyrians. The Isaiah writer is at pains to get that watchman to do his duty and thus report the calamity to come.
    One could be tempted to alert Mr Abbot to a close reading of Isaiah 52,53 while he meditates on detention centres. When he lines up his actions with a core text of his faith and realises he will be found wanting, we’ll surely see a change of heart.
    I remain
    Yours sincerely
    J. Quin.

  17. I was ready to get on board with you, but then you had to take that petty little snipe at the end. You turned a potentially thoughtful piece on the nature of fiction into a sophomoric hit piece against liberals. Lame.

    1. I was really ready to get on board with you, but then you had to use that petty little ableist snipe at the end. You turned a potentially illuminating critique on my knee-jerk aversion to liberal self-importance into a misguided rant against lame people. Gay.

      1. It was my understanding that Atticus Finch was more like the man Harper Lee would have liked her father the racist to have been. It wasn’t Atticus Finch who was the racist.

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