This summer, sadly, I lost an old friend. Not that he passed away, but he changed so radically that it has become impossible for me to hold him in the same high regard. I used to think he was a paragon of honesty, dignity, compassion, courage. But earlier this year, the man I so admired proved to be frankly racist, to my own great surprise and the dismay of readers around the world. I’m speaking, of course, of Atticus Finch, hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, villain of Go Set a Watchman.
It would have been hard to miss the kerfuffle that greeted the July release of Harper Lee’s “sequel” to her famous 1960 book about the Depression-era Finch family of Maycomb, Ala. (Go Set a Watchman depicts the same family in the 1950s but was actually written before Mockingbird, in 1957, and is thought to be an earlier draft of the celebrated novel.) Some deplored the fact that Watchman was published at all, because it is not as well crafted as Mockingbird and spoils the author’s reputation. Some accused the publisher of naked greed, cashing in belatedly on the great commercial success of the novel’s older sibling. But the most troubling aspect of Watchman is the new light it sheds on Atticus, Mockingbird’s beloved protagonist.
In Mockingbird, Atticus, a lawyer, defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. But in Watchman, Atticus is revealed to have attended meetings of the Ku Klux Klan in his younger days and now presides over Maycomb’s White Citizens’ Council, a “tonier” version of the Klan. Atticus of Watchman asks his grown-up daughter Scout, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” The liberal-thinking Scout is shocked.
Reviewer Randall Kennedy, writing in the New York Times in July, talked thoughtfully about the moral dilemma Scout faces upon learning of her father’s repugnant views. “Is it wrong to revoke affection because of disgust with the ideology of someone who has nurtured you all your life?” he imagines Scout asking herself. “Is it complacent to refuse to?”
It’s not just Scout who faces this dilemma. A similar predicament also confronts readers. These two stories, taken together, present us with a character who is at once deeply vile and enormously compelling. How does that affect our feelings about the books he inhabits? Is it wrong to “revoke affection” for a literary work that lionizes a bigot? Is it “complacent” to fail to do so?
Rethinking Mockingbird in the light of Watchman reminded me of an earlier episode in my life involving an equally troubling shelf of books. Before my daughter was born, I set about assembling a library of the works that had thrilled me as a child, wanting to pass on their legacy of companionship, escape and delight. My collection included such classics as Treasure Island and The Secret Garden, along with Percy Westerman’s 1932 novel The Amir’s Ruby, a particular favourite; all eight of Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, published between 1944 and 1955; and stories by John Buchan, a Scot appointed governor general of Canada in 1935.
I began to reread the canon of my childhood. The more I read, the more nostalgia gave way to embarrassment. Mary of The Secret Garden avers that blacks “are not people.” Whoa! How did I fail to notice that? In Enid Blyton’s series, the girls make sandwiches while the boys go off and have adventures. Invariably, the adventures involve villains. Invariably, the villains are hirsute or “swarthy” or both, and bear names like Pedro and Juan. The Amir’s Ruby, I discovered, comprises four pages of British imperialist propaganda for every three pages of narrative, and contains not a single female character.
My personal new non-favourite is Buchan’s 1910 novel Prester John. The story of a Scottish shop clerk in South Africa who scuppers an uprising of Africans against their British colonial masters, this book is absolutely drenched in racism, the more shocking because it is so casually expressed, with the assumption that the reader would be in perfect agreement.
The “heroic” shop clerk, for example, tells of a close encounter he has with the (black) leader of the rebellion, where he feigns to be no threat to the revolt. “I blush to-day to think of the stuff I talked,” the clerk says. “I told him affectionately that I liked natives. . . . I explained that I . . . believed in equal rights for all men, white or coloured. God forgive me, but I think I said I hoped to see the day when Africa would belong once more to its rightful masters.” (Personally, my adult self thinks God would be okay with that concept. What my adolescent self made of it, I could not tell you.)
So there it was, in black and white as it were, my proposed gift to my daughter: dollops of racism, sexism, xenophobia, imperialism and more racism. I decided against imposing this twisted legacy on her. Why burden a delicate new mind with this odious crap? And then I thought of my own impressionable childhood mind. I loved these books. I swallowed them whole, the bad with the good. It makes me wonder where all the bad stuff is currently hiding.
So, now, what to do with these books? Books we loved, but which (like Atticus) are now transparently objectionable. Toronto author and bookseller Peter Sellers points out, in reference to Blyton’s series, that along with swarthy, bearded foreign villains, the books exhort readers to show grit, ingenuity, perseverance. “There’s a whole lot of positive value in those books,” he says. “They’re not going to go away, and they shouldn’t. They talk about things fundamental to the development of our society.”
His view echoes a 2009 comment on the website Goodreads by “Tim” (first name only), who accords Prester John four stars out of five, not despite of its racism, but because of it. Old literature “provides a dimensionality to who we are, who we have become, and who we might become,” he writes. “Understanding what people took for granted in the past that ‘just ain’t so’ helps us to accept the possibility that we too are subject to change.”
Re-addressing Harper Lee’s books in this spirit, one can argue that Atticus’s belatedly revealed racism makes him a much more interesting character than the saintly version we met 55 years ago. And that makes Lee’s two stories richer, deeper and more real.
Meanwhile, my daughter has found her own books to read, and my old favourites gather dust while I figure all this out.
Richard Wright is a writer in Toronto.
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