A recent issue of the New York Times Book Review contained two front page side-by-side review essays that were ultimately about one of my all-time favorite novels, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Technically, the essays were about two recently published books about Mockingbird: Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters, by Tom Santopietro and Atticus Finch: The Biography, by Joseph Crespino. The reviewers dutifully discuss the merits of the books being reviewed (which I have not read), but their real purpose is to advance the debate over the merits of Mockingbird itself. Although they approached their tasks from different perspectives — and are reviewing different books — neither does justice to the qualities that have made Mockingbird so popular, and its hero, Atticus Finch, so widely admired.
In this, they are aided by Harper Lee’s only other published work, To Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015. Watchman, which Lee had long refused to publish, was essentially a rough draft of the book that eventually became Mockingbird. It is set three decades after Mockingbird and depicts an Atticus Finch who is far less admirable than the character known to readers (or moviegoers) from Mockingbird. Watchman cannot be read as a sequel of Mockingbird. There are far too many inconsistencies between the two books, of which the different depictions of the character of Atticus Finch is the most important.
I admit up front that one reason for my admiration of Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch is in part intensely personal. Like him, I am a widowed lawyer who raised two young children as a single parent. Unlike him, I was not confronted in my professional life with any case requiring any particular courage. But when Atticus tells Sheriff Heck Tate near the end of the book that “[s]ometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got.” he strikes an emotional chord for me.
Of the two recent review essays in the Times, the one by Roxane Gay reviewing Santopietro’s Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters is more disturbing to Mockingbird fans. One paragraph in particular exemplifies her approach:
…The book is a “product of its time” sure, so let me just say that said time and the people who lived in it were plain terrible. As for the story, I can take it or leave it. Perhaps I am ambivalent because I am black. I am not the target audience. I don’t need to read about a young white girl understanding the perniciousness of racism to actually understand the perniciousness of racism. I have ample firsthand experience.
Crespino’s book, Atticus Finch: The Biography, is reviewed by Howell Raines, former Executive Editor of the Times and a white Alabamian by birth. Crespino’s book, Raines says,
is not timid about exposing the fact that Mockingbird approvingly dramatizes the class bigotry that still prevails in white Alabama. Its corporate and landowning oligarchs monopolize economic and political power, but the states ills are always laid at the feet of lower class whites.
Rainess is more sympathetic than Gay to what he takes to be the goal of Lee’s project. He does not echo Gay’s disdain for all white Southerners, but he sees Mockingbird entirely in the context of the needs and concerns of those white Southerners — especially the ones from Alabama — to counter the stereotypical image of Southern whites as unreconstructed bigots.
Though they approach Lee’s work from different perspectives, both Gay and Raines make the same fundamental mistake. By viewing Mockingbird solely in terms of its meaning for Southerners of that period, they ignore the purpose of literature, which is to explore universal themes through the lens provided by a particular time and place. Like any great novel, Mockingbird is faithful to its particular setting without losing sight of its larger themes.
Though Gay rightly insists that “ubiquity and quality are not the same thing,” Mockingbird’s sustained popularity more than half a century after its publication is surely some evidence of the universality of its themes. The book has sold some 40 million copies and been translated into 10 languages. Does anyone seriously believe that its .popularity reflects a burning desire to learn about life in rural Alabama in the 1930s?
The Atticus Finch of Mockingbird exemplifies the willingness to stand up for what’s right regardless of what others think, but that’s only part of the story. After all, the individual who stands against the crowd is a fairly common literary theme. What’s extraordinary about Atticus is that he stands against the majority without demonizing his opponents. When he explains to Scout why he’s defending Tom Robinson (a black man wrongly accused raping a white woman), though popular opinion is opposed, he adds the caution that “no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”
Throughout the book, Atticus displays this rare ability to stand against the crowd without seeing the rest of the town as evil. He repeatedly talks to his children about the importance of understanding other people by viewing events from their viewpoints. When Scout tells him that he must be wrong because everyone else is disagrees, his response is characteristic:
They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions. But before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
After he, with the children’s help, manages to defuse a potential lynch mob, he describes the former client who had led the mob as “basically a good man. He just has his blind spots, along with the rest of us.”
Atticus Finch has his blind spot as well — the inability to recognize the existence of undiluted evil. When Scout asks him whether it’s okay to hate Hitler, whom he has called a “maniac,” he responds in the negative: “It’s not okay to hate anybody.” (In fairness, this conversation is depicted as taking place in 1935, well before the full enormity of Nazi evil was known.)
The Hitler remark foreshadows the book’s climax.– Bob Ewell’s attack on Jem and Scout. Unable to comprehend the full depth of Ewell’s evil, Atticus seriously underestimates the danger Bob Ewell poses — a miscalculation that almost costs his children their lives. In his final conversation with Sheriff Tate, he admits that he “can’t conceive of a man” who would kill children to get revenge on their parent, falling back on the only explanation he can fathom. “He was out of his mind.” The sheriff, however, takes a less idealized, more pragmatic view:
Don’t like to contradict you, Mr. Finch — wasn’t crazy, mean as hell. Low-down skunk with enough liquor in him to make him brave enough to kill children. He’d never have met you face to face.
The book’s climax may be read as a warning against carrying Atticus’s refusal to demonize his opponents too far. That doesn’t negate, however, the fact that the bulk of Mockingbird holds him up as the ideal. Sure, the rare person who rises to the moral level of an Atticus Finch may sometimes need reminding that there are some truly evil people in the world. But looking around at our country today, an excess of mutual respect and tolerance does not seem to be a pressing problem.
The divisive atmosphere that now dominates our politics has permeated the Jewish community as well. By itself this is not surprising. We, after all, invented the concept of machloket leShem Shamayim (dispute for the sake of heaven) (Avot 5:21), and over the centuries we’ve had a lot of practice at it. For much of our history, though, the forces of persecution created a natural boundary beyond which our disputatious natures could not safely take us. In modern America, the non-Jewish world has discovered that the best way to undermine Judaism is to leave Jews to our own devices.
In 21st century America, Jews — including even some openly observant Jews — participate fully in the political life of the country, some holding elective or appointive office, others serving as part of the opinion-forming institutions of the media. I wish I could report that the most committed Jews are conspicuous by their respect and tolerance for those who disagree with them, but alas I can report no such thing. As far as I can tell, our immersion in American politics has merely given us another set of issues to argue about.
I’m not suggesting that we sacrifice our well thought-out opinions, just because others disagree. Atticus Finch didn’t stop defending Tom Robinson just because his fellow townsmen objected. But even while acting in accordance with his conscience, he could still remind his daughter that those who objected were “still our friends, and this is still our home.”
A refusal to demonize our adversaries, whether in communal disagreements or national politics, is always worth striving for, but it takes on added poignancy as we approach Tisha b’Av, when we mourn for the destruction of the Temple and the numerous tragedies that followed. That destruction and the centuries of exile that followed, we are reminded every year, was brought about by sinat chinam (baseless hatred). As discussed in the halakhic community today, the warning against sinat chinam takes on a ritualistic quality. We often seem to forget that our readiness for the ultimate redemption will be measured not by what we say about sinat chinam on Tisha b’Av, but by what we do about in in the weeks and months that follow.
In the words of the sage Ben Zoma (Avot 4:1), “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” Maybe it’s a stretch to apply that principle to fictional characters, but when real role models are so scarce, we must take inspiration wherever we can find it.
An easy and meaningful fast to all.