There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
– Emily Dickinson
I started this essay a bit ago, but wanted the dust and my reaction to settle before posting it. What helped was understanding the origin and nature of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman (GSAW) which became, through the efforts of an excellent editor, To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAM). The following facts also helped.
- It is semi-autobiographical.
- Atticus Finch is based upon Lee’s Father, Amasa Coleman Lee. (Finch is her mother’s maiden name)
- Amasa Lee was a segregationist until later in life when he had a change of heart and spoke passionately about integration.
- Harper Lee was raised in the same culture as her father, but in a “do as I say, not as I do” way that allowed her a clearer view of the world so she did not have those same prejudices that he did.
That last point is very important and one I have personal experience with. You see I’m only a first generation “Yankee”. My family comes from Arkansas, and from a segment of society somewhere just above the Ewell’s but below the Finch’s. I especially remember my grandmother telling me what it was like when she first came to California and when she met my grandfather. How he came from a family that considered her socially inferior. To make a long story short, after their marriage, my grandfather had little contact with his family. They could, and never would, accept my grandmother.
It’s just the way it was back then. To get a better idea of how Central California felt about “Okies” and “Arkies” like my grandmother, The Grapes of Wrath is a great primer.
Then, and even in some parts of the South now, there was a strict social structure as well as a racial one. This is why TKAM means so much to me – it’s a glimpse into a world that my family was once a part of.
It’s also why I’ve come to accept that Atticus Finch is more complex and flawed than previously believed. I admit, it was shocking at first, but eventually believable.
I also have to take into account that the narrator in TKAM is a six-year old girl who sees her father in a light that we all seem to have when it comes to beloved parents: not necessarily accurate and definitely touched by a little hero-worship.
GSAW is a raw, unedited story narrated by an adult woman who is looking back at a culture and a father in a way that pulls them out of a softened memory and shines a glaring and judgmental light on them.
I grew up seeing how difficult it is to integrate two different cultures. I’ve seen that it is possible to accept the negatives without detracting from the positives. One is not born a racist. Being raised by racists do not make you one. It is all about your choices, and more importantly, those choices are not permanent and disabling.
As much as Atticus/Amasa wanted his children to not judge people by their lot in life, he knew all too well this was how it worked. When Scout/Harper realized he was a more active member of a racist society than she had believed, she was confused and hurt. GSAW is her reaction. A letter to her past, her father, and her town. A letter she wanted at one time to be public; to shine a light on the good and the bad in the hopes that there would be some who saw the light and would change – much like her father did.
After the success of TKAM, seeing the effect Atticus had on readers, I believe Harper decided to shelve GSAW because she didn’t want those adoring fans to see Atticus in a way she had. That maybe in time, after her death, the public would be ready. That decision seems to have been taken away from her, but whatever the truth behind the release, it’s out and here to stay.
In real life, her father (and thus Atticus) was a man Scout/Harper grew to respect and love with all her heart. She accepted his change of heart, so If she can, then I can too.
The challenge is learning to accept the shadows of the past which are created when the light of maturity glows harshly and heavy upon it. But the light is fleeting and will change. Sometimes for the worse, but many times for the better.
This is how I will read Watchman: understanding that Atticus is a flawed creature who eventually changed for the better. In TKAM he taught me about moral rectitude. In GSAW, he will teach me how this lesson has a price and doesn’t always come swathed in a beautiful and perfect package.
PS – As an aside, the other shocking revelation in GSAW was handled badly, but it was based what happened to Harper’s real brother, so of course it happens to Jem. Another lesson in the realities of life and how quickly and shockingly it can change from one heartbeat to the next.