Good Atticus, Bad Atticus


Arts & Culture


Last week, in an uncomfortable but enlightening coincidence, America was confronted with the two faces of its most ambiguous fictional hero, Atticus Finch, the principled racist who bestrides Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Go Set a Watchman (2015). On Tuesday, Finch took to the public square in both his avatars. There was Atticus, the moral exemplar of Mockingbird, who appeared in President Obama’s farewell speech to the nation. And there was Atticus, the courteous Southern chauvinist of Watchman, in the form of Senator Jeff Sessions, who was being vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee for the post of U.S. Attorney General.

Addressing a profoundly divided nation in his final presidential plea, Obama urged black and white America “to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction—Atticus Finch—who said, ‘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.’ ” 

Obama was channeling the Mockingbird Atticus, the courageous lawyer who, in the racist South of the 1930s, defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl and faces down a lynch mob—the Atticus whose honorable example inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights marchers to brave fire hoses, batons, and police dogs. This was, of course, a far cry from the segregationist Atticus of Watchman, who was revealed to a stunned nation when Lee’s sixty-year-old manuscript was published two years ago. This elderly Atticus was the antithesis of the liberal race hero of Mockingbird. He was terrified at the prospect of “Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters,” and nauseated by the idea of his Southern “social Arcadia” despoiled by miscegenation.

And yet Obama—the child of an interracial union, surely aware of the warts-and-all Watchman Atticus—had chosen to quote him anyway, to climb into Atticus’s white Alabaman skin and embrace the content of his character, enacting the very empathy he was pleading for and stepping away from the Manichaean political divide. It was a canny move—something one would expect from an unabashedly literary president. As Obama said to Michiko Kakutani in an interview, he chose to quote Atticus Finch because “it bridges them,” with “them” referring to Americans “isolated in their little bubbles,” as Kakutani had put it.

Obama was right: the Mockingbird Atticus still resonates powerfully in the American imagination; he remains the definitively bipartisan hero. The president urged blacks to look at the world from the point of view of an underprivileged “middle-aged white guy,” even as he cautioned whites from disparaging minority demands for justice as “reverse racism.”

But the “bridge” Obama spoke of goes even farther than that. Just hours before the president invoked the fictional Methodist Alabama lawyer, a real-life Methodist Alabama lawyer was being grilled by the Senate. At seventy-one, Jeff Sessions is roughly the same age as the Watchman Atticus, and he harbors similarly regressive views. Where Finch scornfully referred to NAACP-paid lawyers as “standing around like buzzards,” Sessions has called the group “Un-American.” And just as Sessions called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 “a piece of intrusive legislation,” Atticus strongly felt that blacks, backward and infantile, were simply not yet ready to vote. If Atticus denounced the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision on the grounds that it made nonsense of state rights (and, of course, allowed “Negroes by the carload in our schools”), Sessions vigorously protested the Supreme Court’s sanction of gay marriage as “part of a continuing effort to secularize” the country by “force and intimidation.”

In 1985, when Sessions was the United States attorney in Alabama, he unsuccessfully prosecuted three African American civil-rights activists for voter fraud—arraigning them with twenty-nine charges that carried a punishment of up to 250 years in jail. He was acting on complaints made by a local branch of the White Citizens’ Council. These groups sprang up all over the South after Brown v. Board to stem the tide of desegregation—Atticus, too, is an upstanding member of the local Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, and it is by listening in to the racist speeches at one of its meetings that his horrified daughter, Scout, first learns of her father’s segregationist sympathies. Sessions’s prosecution was so egregious, so obviously motivated by racism, that the Senate rejected his candidacy for a federal judgeship under Ronald Reagan in 1986, with Senator Ted Kennedy calling him “a throwback to a disgraceful era.”

Sessions supporters, black and white alike, insist the Senator is far removed from the man he was then. His political arc, they’d argue, is inverse to that of Atticus, who goes from an idealistic young Finch to a bigoted old Crow. To be fair, in the thirty years since that court case, Sessions’s actions have, publicly at least, been uncontroversial on the issue of race. He’s cosponsored legislation to honor civil-rights activists who marched on Selma in 1965, and successfully prosecuted the two Klansmen involved in the 1981 lynching of a nineteen-year-old black man. But Evelyn Turner, one of the black activists he prosecuted in the voter fraud case, is intractable. “Have you ever known a leopard to change his spots?” she recently said to CNN. “I haven’t … Sessions is still a racist.”

The honorable Mockingbird Atticus must have had his Jim Crow spots, too—we just didn’t see them until Watchman (written earlier but published much later) brought them into glossy relief. I’d argue that, despite its mediocrities, it’s a far more honest, humane, realistic novel than the radiantly folksy Mockingbird. It’s testimony to Finch’s enduring appeal that, despite the damaging revelations of Watchman, people—Obama included—cling to that simplistic old Atticus. Harper Lee should be commended for daring to complicate our romance with him—a decision that proved to be eerily prescient. In today’s America, as rife as ever with racial prejudice, who could doubt that Atticus Finch would probably end up voting for Trump?

When Mockingbird was published in 1960, and especially when the film adaptation debuted two years later, it augured a kind of hope—as flawed and heavy-handed as its approach to racism was, Mockingbird invited the feeling that if only there were more Atticuses, Jim Crow would vanish and the country be reborn a post-racial Arcadia. (Witness, for instance, the ascendance of Atticus as a baby name.) As a receptacle for the nation’s optimism and aspiration, Atticus became, in a sense, a proto-Obama. But how can Atticus be both Obama and Sessions? How do the Mockingbird Atticus and Watchman Atticus cohabit in one skin? It’s a paradox that’s both “breathtaking,” to use one of Sessions’ favorite adjectives, and “audacious,” to use one of Obama’s. But as Harper Lee knew well, it’s a very humdrum paradox, replicated in millions of Americans across the country; it encapsulates the halting but ever-evolving moral arc of America’s approach to race, in which, as Obama has said, “For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.”

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist who writes on books.