A good friend and I were talking recently about Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s book set twenty years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird. Written two years before its celebrated prequel and yet published over fifty years afterward, the questionable circumstances of its publication has immersed Watchman in controversy, but perhaps not more so than its portrayal of Mockingbird’s most beloved character, Atticus Finch.
In Mockingbird, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young girl, watches Atticus, her father and an attorney in tiny Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, defend a black man falsely accused of rape. In the eyes of the child, her father is a moral exemplar, and, in the eyes of the audience, he is a man far ahead of his time and place. In Watchman, Scout is now 26 and lives in New York City. She returns to Maycomb to find her father attending meetings of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist group. Her uncle tries to explain to her that Atticus is merely trying to slow government interventions in state politics, but Atticus later argues with her that southern blacks are not ready for full civil rights. She is disillusioned by these words, which seem to go against everything he ever taught her, and the reader is just as jarred by the departure from the character we thought we knew in Mockingbird.
Grant, my aforementioned friend, is from Harper Lee’s hometown, which was fictionalized as Maycomb in the two novels. I, similarly, am from a small town in Georgia, and both of us were raised steeped in the culture of the Deep South, even if decades after the books’ setting. Very early in our friendship, we came upon the fact that neither of us saw the two portrayals of Atticus as irreconcilable. This is unique amongst most people I know who have read the books. We recognize people we learned from and idolized as children to be highly flawed characters through our adult eyes. Yet, as we were talking a couple of weeks ago about our hometowns and what it is like to visit them now, encountering these glaringly apparent imperfections, Grant said the words that I had been thinking: “I am Scout.”
Like Scout, I visit my hometown every so often, having spent the last fifteen years in different environments. I went to college and graduate school. I studied literature, art, and theology. I nurtured passions for music and theater. The last decade has been spent living in a rather diverse, fairly Bohemian city. When I return to my hometown, I realize I am a fish out of water. I recognize the sights, the sounds, and the flavors, but they are no longer mine. There is an aesthetic, verbal, and all-around cultural disconnect. The experience is bittersweet. The bitter especially comes when I hear comments from those I encounter, even relatives, about people of different races, religions, and lifestyles, about immigration and similar issues. How could they, the very people who taught me to “do unto others” and “love my neighbor as myself,” believe the things they say?
My problem, however, is that I really am Scout. Like Jean Louise Finch, my tendency is to look down on people in my hometown for what I perceive as their regressive views, their lack of cultural and educational breadth, and such, and begin to hold myself high. I thereby become as prejudiced as I think they are. It doesn’t excuse their prejudice, but it indicts me of mine. While I try to champion benevolence and grace for the world, amongst the very people who raised me I have a surprising lack of compassion and understanding.
It’s an area where I need to learn from Christ. I have always particularly liked the Apostle Peter. A fisherman by trade, Peter was a working-class, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. He wasn’t highly educated like Paul, he could be a bit rough and tumble, and he was always putting his foot in his mouth. He even made stupid decisions based on social pressure and prejudice regarding Gentiles well into the years of the early Church. And yet this is the apostle Jesus picks to champion the first efforts of Gospel proclamation.
None of us are as we should be. Perhaps I should pull the plank from my eye before I rid my neighbor of the speck in his and be able to love him for all his strengths and weaknesses. In Go Set A Watchman, without giving too much away, Scout finally comes to terms with her father and loves him. The idealized Atticus Finch is gone–he never actually existed–and in the place of that polished idol is Atticus in a form Scout has never before known: human.
(Cover image: detail from the cover of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, ©HarperCollins)