By Charles K. Poole
Atticus Finch. The name even sounded impressive.
That was my first reaction many years ago when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. But as impressive as the name was, the values and character of Atticus Finch were even more extraordinary. The character quickly earned my respect, like, and appreciation. That’s because Atticus Finch helped me see how one person standing up can and does make a difference. And when I eventually saw the character embodied by Gregory Peck in the movie years later, my admiration only grew.
Finch was always there whenever I thought about challenging the status quo, defying tradition, or confronting an outright wrong. Finch said, for example, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This idea became one of the ingredients that made up the concrete I poured as the foundation of my belief system, and was the litmus test for every consideration I’ve undertaken when dealing with issues or race or any challenging issue since I first realized my power to choose who I am. That, too, was inspired by Finch when he said, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Over the course of my life I changed … and so did Atticus. I didn’t read Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman, and I’m not sure that I want to. According to reviews, we can still admire his wit, wisdom, and steadfastness. But some of his qualities are not so admirable, as reflected in what he says and thinks about Black people. Reviewers call the older Atticus a racist, who aligns himself with the very people who he once so eloquently fought against. What happened to the Atticus Finch I thought I knew?
Perhaps I need to “climb into his skin an walk around in it” to determine if the Atticus in the current book is a racist, or a man disillusioned, confused and misinformed, much in the way another that a character in a groundbreaking TV show of the ‘60s and ‘70s — All In The Family – -was. Archie Bunker could easily be classified as a racist, but his bluster reflected his disillusion with a world that he couldn’t comprehend and the people who he felt made it that way. Ultimately, Bunker’s reactions to everything — from race to gender to matrimony — were rooted in whether or not he saw them producing a result that made things go his way.
Like Bunker, Atticus Finch’s human flaw — even in Mockingbird, where it was viewed favorably by many readers — lies in his perception of how the world should look, regardless of what others thought. In Watchman, Finch disparages leaders (and those who follow them) of the civil rights movement. He expresses his disfavor with organized civil rights organizations and attacks them with the same vigor he attacked racists in Mockingbird. God help anyone who didn’t subscribe to his thinking; he’d cut you down with words honed as idealistic weaponry. So is what we learn of Finch in Watchman accurately defined as racism, or is it the behavior of a man disillusioned by a people and a process, both of which aren’t managing things the way he thinks they should be done? As I decide whether I will read the new book, I’m willing to entertain that notion. Admittedly, I may be finding it difficult to see a lifelong hero as someone less than heroic. I don’t really know.
The Atticus Finch who I knew as a child remains in my consciousness. He informs my philosophy. I’m not buying into labeling him a racist … yet. Based on the early reviews of the new book, Finch simply seems more like the rest of us: equally capable of great things and despicable behaviors. And since Lee probably won’t write another book that completes his story, who knows what will become of Finch?
Based on the two very different aspects of his character portrayed in the books, I still believe the Atticus who I admire from To Kill a Mockingbird will prevail. That is my Atticus Finch–my hero—no matter what.