The other day I happened to catch To Kill a Mockingbird on television. It was airing as part of the general enthusiasm that preceded the release of Go Set a Watchman, the controversial follow-up to Mockingbird that now stalks Harper Lee's classic novel like a shadow. I hadn't seen the movie since childhood, and made sure to pay attention during the famous trial scene, where Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, uses all his wiles and rhetorical powers to save the life of Tom Robinson, a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. "In the name of God, do your duty," Atticus thunders in his closing speech, as if willing some spiritual transference of his own moral integrity into the hearts of the white jurors before him.
Robinson, of course, is found guilty anyway, and the trial scene ends with a defeated Atticus walking out of a courtroom that is empty but for the balcony, which is where the black observers are consigned to sit. They all rise to honor him ("Your father's passing," the Reverend Sykes tells Atticus' daughter Scout, an emotional gilding of the lily that achieves it goal of drawing out even more tears), and Atticus, ringed by these black worshippers, takes on the aspect of a Christ-like savior. It is a powerful scene, underscoring the heartbreaking injustice of it all; but it's impossible not to be jarred by the imagery, which, to put it kindly, feels a little dated.
The release of Go Set a Watchman, which turns Mockingbird on its head by revealing that Atticus is a racist, has brought new scrutiny to what has long been considered a classic tale of the fight for racial justice and equality. As I wrote earlier this week, the publication of Watchman reeks of a scam to sell a lot of books by framing a first draft of Mockingbird as a kind of postmodern project that breathes new complexity into a familiar, iconic character — a project that I argued is conceptually nonsensical, since it breaks the laws of fiction in a clumsy way. (The really dastardly part of this scheme was to get Harper Lee's millions of admirers to preorder the book on Amazon before Atticus was outed as a white supremacist and the negative reviews rolled in.) The Atticus Finch of Mockingbird, by definition, is not a racist — he can be made one, but not by a simple snapping of fingers, even if those fingers belong to his creator.
But it turns out that Watchman may indeed give us a new understanding of Mockingbird — just not in the way Lee and her publisher intended.
Watchman has served as an occasion for many to argue that Mockingbird is the book that is fatally flawed, a novelistic manifestation of the structural racism that continues to permeate our lives like air. The novelist Toni Morrison earlier this year described it as perpetuating a "white savior" narrative, in which whites led the fight for civil rights and blacks were helpless, passive actors. "The popularity and heart-warming poignancy of To Kill a Mockingbird buries the very real activism and resistance of black citizens in Alabama and throughout the South right at the time that Lee wrote her story," wrote Colin Dayan at Al Jazeera America. "Its publication made invisible the very people it claimed to care about."
As Randall Kennedy noted in his review of Watchman for The New York Times Book Review, there may be other problems with Mockingbird, many of which were first raised by a law professor named Monroe Freedman. Freedman argued that Atticus is a man of his times through and through, in that he is far too tolerant of white supremacy. Malcolm Gladwell also cited Freedman in a critique of Mockingbird in The New Yorker in 2009, which features a dismantling of another famous scene, this one of Atticus defending Tom Robinson from a mob of would-be lynchers led by Walter Cunningham:
The mob eventually scatters, and the next morning Finch tries to explain the night's events to Scout. Here again is a test for Finch's high-minded equanimity. He likes Walter Cunningham. Cunningham is, to his mind, the right sort of poor white farmer: a man who refuses a W.P.A. handout and who scrupulously repays Finch for legal work with a load of stove wood, a sack of hickory nuts, and a crate of smilax and holly. Against this, Finch must weigh the fact that Cunningham also leads lynch mobs against black people. So what does he do? Once again, he puts personal ties first. Cunningham, Finch tells his daughter, is "basically a good man," who "just has his blind spots along with the rest of us." Blind spots? As the legal scholar Monroe Freedman has written, "It just happens that Cunningham's blind spot (along with the rest of us?) is a homicidal hatred of black people." [The New Yorker]
In a fortuitous coincidence, the other important book published this week was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who more than anyone else in recent times has abided by James Baldwin's dictum to "force our [white] brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it." Coates revealed in an interview with Slate that he has never even read Mockingbird and is not interested in doing so, which can be interpreted as an indication of the irrelevance of Mockingbird to the black experience, even as it remains absolutely essential to the white understanding of America's racist past.
As Stephen L. Carter wrote in a rare positive review of Watchman, "[W]e perhaps ought to recall the historian Gordon Wood's admonition not to judge the past by the standards of the present." But in this era, the standards of the present have had an immense impact on the literature that is deemed appropriate for consumption. Columbia University announced this year that it will not include Ovid's Metamorphoses in its introductory humanities course for freshmen, following protests by students who said they were offended by its passages of sexual violence. The new leadership of The New Republic, a 100-year-old magazine that once published the likes of Virginia Woolf, has all but disowned its legacy in an attempt to apologize for past coverage of race-related issues that was once deemed acceptable, but is now viewed as offensive. It is not so hard to imagine a future in which Mockingbird is struck from middle school curricula for being a racist relic.
I don't particularly care about the fate of Mockingbird per se, but I am concerned about why this is all happening. There is an ascendant view of literature that is proscriptive in nature, rather than inclusive, which could have ramifications for all the works of art tinged by racism's poison (i.e., much of the Western canon). The controversy over Mockingbird calls into question whether any artwork can lay a claim to universality in the America of 2015. Universality is a cliché, of course, the stuff of book jackets and movie posters, which treat love and happiness like some homogenous substance that oozes out of the communal pie. But in another sense, universality is the premise of all art, the idea that another's mind, another's creation, can be entered and absorbed, that we are not atomized individuals incapable of connection. Baldwin, presciently capturing our moment, rejected this notion, writing, "In some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the Stones of Paris, to the Cathedral at Chartres, and the Empire State Building a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage."
In this view, art has a wall, and that wall is race. The writer Teju Cole, who highlighted this passage in a recent essay, said, "This is where I part ways with Baldwin," adding, "I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait." For myself, a biracial man who did not grow up in this country (a fact that I reluctantly state only because the identity of the reader has now become as important as that of the author), it is not often that I see characters in my precise image reflected in books. Yet I, too, have never felt what Baldwin describes in the above passage; I can live in his mind as easily as I can live in the narrative persona known as Scout, and I consider both part of a universal heritage. After all, it can't be said that Mockingbird's basic message of racial justice is ambiguous, even if the message and its messenger are colored by their times. And there are traits in the messenger's character — integrity, conviction, intelligence, wisdom — that are, yes, universally admired.
None of this is to say that I don't understand where Baldwin is coming from, which is a very sad place. Atticus' famous line is, "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." In its folksy way, this could stand as a motto for literature as a whole. But it would appear that the skin is precisely the barrier at which our powers of empathy become useless. If it is impossible for a black person in this country to see himself in Atticus Finch, only poor Tom Robinson next to him, then it just goes to show what a sorry state we're in.