(Picture by Jennifer Avery)
Like so many others, the announcement that Go Set A Watchman’s version of Atticus Finch is a once KKK visiting, segregationist, deeply racist individual set my childhood on fire. Other people only saw it as an added complexity to a supposed fictional hero and other people felt this confirmed what they always saw Atticus and the whole To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) package as.
First off, while this revelation may always leave a dent in my enjoyment of the beautiful movie I grew up on and in the interest I had in my ninth grade English class assigned reading that dragged on a little and took way to many detours from the importance of a white man defending a wrongly accused black man in the South during the 1930s.
“…the importance of a white man defending a wrongly accused black man…” It’s telling that that’s the first thing I came up with to describe the book version of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, because subconsciously I must have realized that, while “To Kill A Mockingbird” (1960) is a story about social issues from the 1930s, like the intensity of racism white people hammered onto black people, it’s not Tom Robinson’s story. It’s not the direct story of any black person. It’s Scout’s and Atticus’s story. We do see Jem’s story, since he’s Scout’s brother, and it may even be Boo Radley’s story more than it is Tom’s, considering he’s more of central figure to the children’s lives. We see the effects of racism mostly through the eyes of the people who benefited from it and who may have some racism stuck in them. (Ex: When Scout calls the way Calpurnia talks with other black people “nigger talk” and Atticus calls Mayella’s false accusations a “….lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin….”.) http://www.shmoop.com/to-kill-a-mockingb…/race-quotes-1.html
The “Go Set A Watchman”-version-of-Atticus-is-a-racist scandal upset me enough to not want to read it. I immediately recalled how much I loved the movie character, because, to me, not only was he not racist, he was also willing to stand up to hundreds of bigoted gun owning people and defend the really hard working family man who I decided was his new best friend.
However, there was a free trial on Amazon of the Audible version, where I could listen to it being performed by Reese Witherspoon, because, if I was going to hate “Go Set A Watchman”, it might as well be free and I might as well know what’s in it. I needed to find evidence to prove, like I had seen some reviewers say, that this wasn’t really a sequel to the 1960s rewrite, but just a rough draft. That would mean the finished product of Atticus wasn’t really racist after all–at least not like he is in “Go Set A Watchman”. Also, if my childhood was going to be destroyed, it should at least be done in Reese Witherspoon’s voice and the creative team even included music, as if they wanted to tell us, “Yeah, that whole Atticus is a racist thing in this version is going to kill your childhood, but at least you could have some great music and a celebrity narrator to ease the pain.”
Ok, so, “Go Set A Watchman” is definitely not a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960). It’s a rough draft.
In “Go Set A Watchman” the nameless black guy wrongly accused of raping a nameless white girl was young enough to be thought of by Jean Louise (she’s not Scout here, but only in some flashbacks) as a boy, he was missing and arm, and Atticus won his case. In “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), Tom is a twenty-five year old married man with children, his accuser is also named as Mayella, he has both arms, but one is injured, Atticus loses his case, and Tom is eventually killed when he tries to escape.
In “Go Set A Watchman”, Aunt Alexandra’s husband has left her, although everyone knows where he is, while they are still living together in “To Kill A Mockingbird” (1960), although she later leaves him behind to go live with Atticus, Scout, and Jem. Francis is her son in “Go Set A Watchman”, while he is her grandson in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), etc, etc., etc.
My summary of “Go Set A Watchman”:
Jean Louise Finch returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York. She is conflicted about whether or not she should marry her boyfriend Henry Clinton, even though she knows he got a girl “in trouble” once, but considers that just “the man in him”. He was her late brother’s (yup, Jem just dropped dead one day, because of his heart) best friend and was taken in by Atticus.
She goes home and it becomes clear that she an Atticus don’t like the NAACP for some reason, but then it’s such a shocker that Atticus is a racist. (Henry is too.)
Calpurnia’s grandson accidentally hits a white man with his car and Atticus wants to defend him to keep away lawyers from the NAACP that he describes a s “buzzards”. When Jean Louise goes to see Calpurnia, she only sees Jean Loiuse as part of the racism problem white people have made. This obviously upsets Jean Louise.
Jean Louise talks, separately, with Atticus’s brother and Henry about her father’s racism. Her uncle is apparently racist too and he and Henry give blah, blah, blah, blah explanations about why Atticus is racist, isn’t racist, is racist, isn’t racist, blah blah blah, her uncle was in love with her mom (Yes, her uncle actually feels like that was appropriate for their conversation.), blah, blah, blah, blah.
Jean Louise confronts Atticus about his racism. For some reason, he is oddly calm and he points out her own racism. He acts like he has black people’s best intentions at heart, but considers them inferior. He is also proud of her for standing up for what believes in and this confuses Jean Louise.
Later on, her uncle tells her not to worry about being a bigot, because she’s not a big one. Jean Louise actually accepts everyone and that they all have racism issues to work out, because apparently they’re all good people somehow.
1.) Harper Lee was devastated to learn her own beloved father was racist and this influenced how she wrote Atticus in “Go Set A Watchman”. In that book, the character’s up and down and down and up conclusions of who Atticus is is Harper Lee’s own inner thoughts about her father who she realizes is a racist, but who she also doesn’t want to realize is a racist, so she tries to make Atticus racist and not racist. In this rough draft, she is asking people to understand her racist father (with Atticus as a stand in), while she also struggles with her love and hatred for him.http://www.newrepublic.com/…/these-scholars-have-been-point…
2.) Atticus and his brother are not actually racist, but they made a plan to convince Jean Louise and Henry they are, because they realize Jean Louise and Henry have some racism in them and Atticus and his bother feel seeing a deeper racism in them will show Jean Louise and Henry how ugly racism is and it will help them get over their own racism. The plan is not working so well on Henry or he may be in on it and only Jean Louise is supposed to learn from this. Also, everyone involved sometimes breaks character and messes up their stories and almost gives the plan away (like when her uncle says he’s helping her, because he loved her mother, and that he always had to watch out for her and Jem), thus explaining the weird views about Atticus and all the men’s confusing thoughts about racism.
This idea is carried over to the next draft, when Atticus thinks the children could learn about courage from Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose by the way she gets over a morphine addiction, despite her racism.
Now, about To Kill a Mockingbird (1960):
I don’t remember if I read Atticus’s racist (although I don’t know if that’s what Harper Lee intended it to be, it’s still obviously weird and hurtful to people to see dark colors associated with evil) comment about Mayella’s lie being like Tom Robinson’s skin (I didn’t enjoy the book as much as the movie and, since it was for school and I had deadlines, and, like I said it dragged on at times, so I may have been skimming the book at that part), but I do remember reading about Scout describing the way Calpurnia and other black people talked as “nigger talk”.
I didn’t like that she used racist language and I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to actually be racist or just a non-racist child taught something bad that she doesn’t understand.
Well, as for what Atticus did, it could be that, like his children, there is some racism in him, although he wants equality as much as his children. They have good intentions, but Scout feeling like the way most white people talk in Maycomb is superior to the way the black citizens talk is still something Calpurnia needs to teach her not to do and Atticus’s association of Tom’s skin tone to lying is problematic because too many people in the town and America think white skin is superior.
However, I don’t think the “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) versions of Scout and Atticus were supposed to have the racism issues of the counterparts in “Go Set A watchman”. I mean Atticus sat outside the Police department, with a gun, to stop anyone who would want to hurt Tom. You don’t take that much of a risk, try really hard to get Tom a “not guilty” verdict, and explain to your daughter that being labeled a “nigger lover” isn’t actually bad, when you’re a racist. Harper Lee clearly wrote this Atticus how she wanted her father to be.
However, like I said before, someone could really hate that this book is recognized as such a civil rights classic, when it’s a white person’s story. It was probably like that to teach white people to be a hero and stand up against racism, so people like me would read it and understand how we could fit into the civil rights puzzle. We don’t really know much about Tom Robinson and that may be on purpose, to point out society’s racial divide. We learn little pieces about him, like that he has a family, what he says during the trial, and how he died, but we see white people’s lives a lot more.
On this website, http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/…/warmly-embrace-rac…, I saw people argue that reading Mildred D. Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” (1976) is a much better way students can look back on the racism issues of the 1930s, since it’s through the eyes of a black girl and, even when their is a white lawyer who tries to help her family, he’s not elevated to the unrealistic levels of respect Atticus Finch had from other white people and their is still some barriers between non-racist white characters.
I read “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” (1976) in the eighth grade and I did get more out of it then I did with “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) the following year. Cassie, the main character in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” (1976), is personally affected by racism and she can’t just retreat into mini childhood adventures like Scout, Jem, and Dil could, which may be why “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” (1976) is more focused and never strays away from it’s racial themes.
While both are important looks at how different people were affected by racism, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) is also about learning to accept the town reclusive and Scout’s struggle against sexism and gender roles. The children don’t get a moment where they befriend Tom Robinson and overcome any prejudice or expectations they may have had of him. We don’t even get to see Atticus’s full journey with this, just what Scout sees, but his children do over come their feelings about Boo Radley, a white man, and fully learn to accept him as a good person. They did love Calpurnia, but they can’t make friends with someone their father hired, the same way they can with someone who their father didn’t. Also, it’s a town standard to have a black woman raise white children, but black men are considered untrustworthy.
My thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird (1962):
Atticus is definitely not racist in this version. Any hints of racism have been cleaned up. He is someone who has always believed in equality (although that could be debated), but finally has to prove how much he does.
During the courtroom scene, he’s really wrestling with himself, as he finally realizes he might lose this case and how much he doesn’t want to for Tom. Maybe, for Tom, who already grasped the hopelessness of the case, and maybe partially for himself, Atticus keeps himself calm and collected, but his own turmoil is undeniable. Likewise, Tom masks his own despair with a stoic expression, although it does show through. He also isn’t afraid to stare down Mayella, as if to scold her and declare, “You know you’re wrong for doing this.”
Despite the close proximity these men have had to be in, the racial barrier is still there and makes things uncomfortable. Tom burns his eyes into Atticus, early on, but Atticus avoids his gaze. Maybe, Atticus couldn’t look him in the eyes, because he doesn’t want to admit what Tom already knows: this will end in a guilty verdict. I also think Atticus can’t bear to admit how bad things are to Tom, because, he feels like if he had stood up for what he believes in earlier, there might not be such an unfair trial for Tom right now. Maycomb might have been different with Atticus’s influence. Maybe.
Brock Peters (Tom) actually was so overcome by the emotions in the courtroom scene that he cried. Gregory Peck couldn’t keep himself together, when he looked at him, and had to avoid it, to get through the scene. This comes off as Atticus’s empathy for Tom and he can’t be racist, when he’s able to do what so many white people in his town can’t. Tom is feeling the town’s unfair persecution crash down harder than it ever has. His own kindness is what he now regrets. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgDDyFnbCv0
Tom and Atticus’s inability to be friends was always a reality, but it’s really sealed as a fact, when that “guilty” verdict is delivered. Atticus tries to keep up a hopeful charade, for Tom, as he gets in stride with him, when Tom is being taken away. Tom doesn’t look at him until, Atticus begs, “Tom!” Whatever feelings of hope he had are gone and we know their chance at a friendship is over. Atticus knows it and can’t even bring himself to look up in the balcony at all the people who consider him worthy of respect. He doesn’t feel like any hero.
With the idea of an Atticus and Tom friendship in mind, I’ll point out that the actors were friends in real life. They were both proud of their work on this picture. However, I do realize we don’t really see enough of Tom (Brock Peters probably did too) or any black people, but how white people view them, and some other movie would give us a more personal glimpse at how black people struggled against oppression.