Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Atticus

I stayed up past my bedtime to finish reading Go Set a Watchman for book club tomorrow (well, technically, later today). And even though I should be getting some sleep, I can't stop thinking and feeling about this book. So I'm blogging.

It wasn't until the day of the book's release that I learned about Atticus-the-racist and Atticus-the-Klan-member. But I knew I'd still buy and read the book; how could I not? I was prepared for the worst. I was prepared to hate this different version of my literary hero. I was all set with my most dependable emotional defense mechanisms, intent on not allowing whatever happened in this book to color my view of To Kill a Mockingbird. I resolved to finish the book and quickly set it aside if that became necessary.

But all of these preparations were uncalled-for.

I don't care what anyone says. I don't care if you think that the characters evolved between Harper Lee's draft of Go Set a Watchman and her writing of To Kill a Mockingbird. For me, the Atticus Finch that I just read across 278 pages is the same Atticus Finch I have idolized since eighth grade. And I want to explain why.

I think my relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird will sound similar to most. It was required reading in junior high, and after we finished the book we watched the movie. I loved both. Like many people do, I saw my own father in Atticus. My dad, the defense attorney who taught me to believe in the presumption of innocence with a fervor that would shape my education and career goals. The man who taught with gentleness, kindness, and love. Yes, of course, Atticus was my father in so many ways.

And I think both men--the one who worked hard to provide me with a comfortable upbringing and the one in black and white print who will forever look like Gregory Peck in my mind--played a role in my decision to attend law school. Obviously my dad had more of an influence there, always talking to me about the law, sharing his love with me. But the first thing I hung on my refrigerator when I moved to Omaha, a week before starting law school, was a laminated quotation from To Kill a Mockingbird wherein Atticus extols the benefits and necessity of the jury system. I read that quote often, a near-constant reminder of why I was there, doing what I was doing.

Toward the end of law school, I had a few unsettling experiences. It might not seem strange from an outsider's perspective, but it was hard for me to handle. My dad saw me compete in and win a regional trial team competition, and the way he spoke to me afterward informed me that the dynamic between us had shifted ever so slightly. He was complimentary about my performance, as any good father would be, but there was more to it than that. He seemed to admire what I had done. He treated me like his equal. This happened a few more times. Once he called and asked me a legal question. My dad is brilliant, but he was asking me a question. I'm brand new in this profession. My dad is still my example and the embodiment of so many goals I have for myself. But in my childhood, that example seemed unattainable. He was perfect in my eyes. He was, in so many ways, a god.

As I grow older and my understanding of the law deepens, I'm confronted with the fact that my dad doesn't know everything. This is something I honestly would not have believed 15 years ago. Along similar lines, I have finally developed a social and political identity entirely separate from my parents'. My dad sometimes makes comments that startle me. I have a hard time understanding some of his political views. When we disagree, I am made more aware of his humanness. These subtle shifts in our relationship haven't led to me loving or respecting my dad any less. Instead, I respect and love him differently. I'm an adult, and a parent/child relationship looks different from a parent/adult-child relationship.

So, back to the book. I don't think it's spoiling much to tell you that Atticus can accurately be described as racist. But you know what? So is Jean Louise. I mean, it was written in the 50's. But the father's and daughter's brands of racism are definitely different.

Jean Louise is more liberal than her father; she thinks states should desegregate. She believes an individual's potential in life should not be hampered by his skin color. But at the risk of sounding like an apologist, I'd submit that Atticus actually agrees with this latter belief. He just has a more paternalistic view about the process. He has an us/them mentality and seems to think that "we" know best; "they" aren't ready for equal rights. He doesn't seem to resent the progress that has been made since the Civil War. But he does think that progress should continue at a "natural" pace rather than being forced too quickly. Jean Louise holds the simpler view that all men are created equal, and there's nothing equal about waiting for change.

When Jean Louise realizes the views her father holds, her world seems to fall apart. She feels like her childhood was built on lies; her father defended a black man accused of rape on principle but now talks about blacks like they're less-than. Jean Louise implicitly realizes that the father of her childhood looks different from her position as an adult. In similar fashion, the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird looks different from the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman. But isn't that what you'd expect? In Mockingbird, Scout sees her father as a god. In Watchman, Jean Louise grapples with the understanding that her father is human.

I don't think the two Atticuses are inconsistent. I don't think you have to abandon your admiration of one in order to accept the other. I think the two books and the two Atticuses and the two Scouts are representative of the divide between childhood and adulthood. A loss of innocence. The shedding of naivet√©. And I think it's simplistic and unfair to say, "Oh, treat this as an unfinished manuscript. It's not really a companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. It shares only the barest similarities." That takes away from the beauty of Go Set a Watchman. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking book because it forces you to confront how we treat our heroes and idols and how we react when we realize they're flawed. I can't separate that lesson, which is contained between the covers, from that same lesson that is taught when we, as readers, hold Mockingbird and Watchman side-by-side and ask ourselves, "Who is my Atticus?"

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