There’s Atticus Finch, and there’s the myth of Atticus Finch. There’s what he is, and what he’s come to stand for. What he is (and I say this with great affection for To Kill a Mockingbird) is an ur-text for the white savior story: a depiction of history that lets white folks today feel good about themselves. If we’d lived back then (we think while reading), we would not have been Bob Ewell. We would be Atticus Finch. (Or the commander in Glory or Skeeter in The Help — or, or, or.)
It’s a problem for minority groups, of course. It privileges a white story over the real stories of black folks organizing and fighting and saving themselves, but let’s put that to the side for a second. Smarter people than me have gone in on the white savior trope (the straight cisgender savior trope too!), and you should read what they have to say about it.
There’s another problem here, though, because — as is so often the case — oppression is toxic to its beneficiaries too. (Though not in a, you know, getting murdered in the street kind of way.) As Alyssa Rosenberg smartly observed recently, racism exists in a lot of fiction so that white heroes can fight against it — and so white audiences can feel smugly aligned with the right side of history. It cripples our ability — which was never strong to start with — to sit with the cognitive dissonance that a racist society creates: that you can be a good person who recycles and gives to charity and signs up to be an organ donor, and still say and do racist things, because racism is the water we’re all swimming in.
Which brings me (at last!) to Go Set a Watchman. It’s not, and I should get this out of the way up front, a good book. That somebody read this draft, saw its promise, and ultimately managed to get To Kill a Mockingbird out of its author is an impressive testament to the brilliance and value of the publishing industry (not that I’m bragging). The second half is all speeches in which the characters painstakingly spell out what’s happening emotionally and how it affects their character and their actions.
Although the book isn’t good, and is cringingly bound to its time (Scout calls herself color-blind and merrily dismisses the idea that a white person would ever want to marry a black person), it does demand a level of moral complexity about the mythological Atticus Finch. It forces the reader to see that racism doesn’t have to look like Bob Ewell, who is fundamentally trash and bad and his racism is only one manifestation of his essential ugliness of spirit. Go Set a Watchman reminds us that racism often looks like Atticus Finch.
I say demands and forces, but of course it’s optional to read it that way. So many readers don’t want Atticus Finch to have racist ideas, because we got attached to him in our ninth-grade English classes. Many people have looked at this book and said, This isn’t Atticus Finch. But here’s the thing: Atticus Finch can be both. He can tell Scout not to use racial slurs, and he can defend a black man in a rape case, and at the same time he can dislike the NAACP and oppose Brown v. Board.
We want perfection from the people we admire, whether they’re civil rights activists or star football players or our parents, and we don’t want to confront the fact that human beings are not perfectible. We were imperfect when we came into this world, and as we move through it, we are shaped by a painfully imperfect society.
What we are is flawed. What we do can change. We can say a racist thing, and then we can read and listen and learn, and apologize for the error, and do better next time. Hiding from the truth of what a racist society hath wrought — even, woe! in someone like Atticus Finch! — only protects and prolongs its racism. Acknowledging it, confronting it, those things are a step towards change. If readers could take that away from Go Set a Watchman, it would be a powerful legacy for this very imperfect book.