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Column: Atticus Finch and the problem of good-hearted racism

Atticus Finch

Not the hero you thought he was.

(Associated Press)

During the waning days of apartheid, I had dinner with a group of liberal South Africans.

And they were liberals in relative terms: Cape Town residents of Anglo descent, they had lived and done business in the closest thing to a multicultural community South Africa offered, geographically and socially remote from the Afrikaner traditions prevailing in Johannesburg and Pretoria, some 900 miles to the north.

They were optimistic about the future of their country and about building a multiracial nation, and free of evident resentment about the political ambitions of their black fellow citizens. They agreed that the blacks deserved equal opportunity and a representative voice in government.  

And yet, listening to them talk, I couldn’t avoid reflecting that the tenor of their discussion would have been treated as profoundly objectionable in any but the most reactionary, racist precincts of the United States.

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It’s not that they sounded like Bull Connor or members of the Klan. It was more their well-meaning and unapologetic condescension. They wholeheartedly endorsed black majority rule -- in principle. But they were also convinced that it would take years, even generations, for black South Africans to gain the education and experience necessary to lead their country in the modern world -- to grow up, in other words. In the interim, of course, the blacks would continue to be dependent on the knowledge and support of my dining companions’ own tribe of white Africans. 

My hosts were hopeful and uneasy, confident in the rationality of a black community they didn’t really know but which, they were certain, shared their desire for a peaceful transition of power.

The root of their uneasiness was economic. South Africa, which for so long had considered itself a rich, economically thriving country, was just then coming to grips with the fact that it was a small economy that only seemed big because its wealth had been concentrated in a very few white hands. There was simply not enough money in the country to bring black educational standards up to the level of white schools after decades of systematic impoverishment; the only path to equivalence involved diminishing the resources provided to white pupils while improving those for black kids, meeting somewhere in the middle. Would either race be happy with the consequences?

I’m reminded of that conversation by the debate over the character of Atticus Finch and the two Harper Lee novels in which he is featured, the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the newly issued “Go Set a Watchman.”

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The depiction of Atticus as a segregationist and racist in “Watchman” has dismayed readers of “Mockingbird” accustomed to seeing him as the decent, principled and valiant man so stolidly portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie. (It’s a fair bet that many fans draw their recollection of the story more from the movie than the book.)

Atticus is now revealed to have a touch of those South African liberals’ condescension, though lacking their optimism. “You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?” Atticus tells the grown-up Scout, Jean Louise. “You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?” (“You deny them hope,” she replies.)

Yet the new book has prompted a closer look at how much of the “new” Atticus Finch was embodied, though hidden away, in the old. For all the courtly tolerance of “Mockingbird’s” Atticus, he was engaged in upholding an entrenched system. His reaction to his innocent black client’s condemnation by the jury is resigned acceptance, not fury. He’s a “plaster saint,” the critic Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 broadside against the book. Like the South Africans, he’s expressing a desire to see justice done, without forcing too much change upon the old ways. 

Part of the difficulty in coming to terms with Atticus Finch is the murky chronology of his creation. The generally accepted version is that “Watchman” is the ur-"Mockingbird,” the original novel that was mined and shaped by Lee and her editor into “Mockingbird.”  There also are grounds to conjecture that it could be the book Lee was said to be working on assiduously after the publication and success of “Mockingbird." 

So did Lee soften and polish Atticus Finch in the transition from “Watchman” to “Mockingbird”? Or sharpen his edges to depict the complexities of the South’s transition out of segregation?

The release of “Watchman” has revived the examination of the popularity of “Mockingbird” set off by Mallon’s critique. There’s no gainsaying “Mockingbird’s” qualities, including its polished, radiant prose and sharp-eyed depiction of fictional Maycomb, Ala. These are only underscored by the clunkiness of so much of “Watchman,” which plainly didn’t get the editorial attention that shaped “Mockingbird.” Among other losses is the substitution of a bloodless third-person narration for the charming first-person voice of the young Scout.

But a more urgent issue is whether “Mockingbird” really is appropriate as the parable of race relations in the old South that it’s accepted to be. It’s a sugar-coated, idealized version, a “child’s book,” as it was dismissed by that uncompromising Southern novelist, Flannery O’Connor.

Sentimentality is what undermines “Mockingbird” -- though it’s less the sentimentality Lee wrote into the book than the sentimentality its readers bring to it. 

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Generations of schoolteachers, abetted by Hollywood, have certified the book as the official depiction of Southern racial injustice. They are overlooking two much finer sources of truth. One, as I observed last year, is William Faulkner, who didn’t know what sugar-coating was. The other is Mark Twain, whose “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is the definitive word on the individual’s victory over racism.

Nothing in “Mockingbird” approaches the episode in which Huck battles in his soul over the obligation to turn the escaped slave Jim over to the authorities, and decides against it, to what he knows is his own eternal damnation. But unlike"Mockingbird,” a child’s book masquerading as an adult book, “Huck Finn” is an adult book masquerading as a children’s story. And that makes all the difference.

Keep up to date with the Economy Hub. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.


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