As an avid fan of To Kill a Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I put off reading Go Set a Watchman for quite some time. This was, of course, after pre-ordering the book before the reviews came in. In those early days, I was full of excitement over where the story might lead – Atticus once again leading with quiet dignity and ideals as the South burned with competing passions for and against integration.
As we quickly found out, the Atticus of Watchman is not the humane superhero we saw in To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead, he’s a human, with all the conflicts and imperfections that brings. The book takes us through Scout’s, or now the grown-up Jean Louise’s, long, tortured realization that her father is fallible.
What most reviews don’t point out, however, thanks to the narrative’s self-righteous tone, is that Scout herself has many disturbing views about African Americans, too. She agrees with Atticus that Black people are backwards and child-like, she just thinks whites should be nicer to them. In this novel, there are no saints.
But, Harper Lee’s real gift is to provide distilled wisdom in the form of quotable chunks. I believe she’d have been a more prolific success if she were coming of age as a writer now, with tools like Twitter at her disposal, to send out those nicely packaged morsels.
One of Lee’s packets of wisdom comes in the middle of Scout’s tirade against her father’s membership in the Maycomb County Citizen’s Council – a segregationist group. Scout says of Atticus’s condemnation of Black intelligence and ambition:
“You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart. You won’t find that in the Constitution, I picked that up in church somewhere…You are telling them that Jesus loves them, but not much. You are using frightful means to justify ends that you think are for the good of the most people.” (Pg. 251)
Wow! I read those lines several times, with a smile on my face. Those four sentences contain so much. First, the notion that all people have hope and thus deserve dignity is a sentiment lacking in our locked-down, guard-up society. It seems at times that we are a nation of hopeless individuals, rather than hopeful. We expect that the best is behind us, that our God, plus or minus Christ, or plus or minus Mohamed, loves us, ‘but not much,’ as Lee writes.
The second striking thing about that passage is that an individual’s worth is not contemplated by the Constitution. Jean Louise learns about hope and dignity in church. Church attendance, especially among mainstream churches, is low in the United States. Think what you will about whether that’s good or bad, but it means that there’s a void for where we learn about humanity, dignity, and human worth.
Harper Lee points us to where we end up when we don’t consider hope and dignity: means justifying ends, in a calculus designed not for the rights, liberty, or flourishing of the individual, but simply the ends that ‘are for the good of the most people.’
How can we correct this sanitized, dehumanizing calculus today? We’re certainly not going to force people into religion.
When I think about these things, I tend to fall back on history as a guide. And you can do a lot worse, especially in this case, than Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s guiding star wasn’t the Constitution, or the Church. Lincoln’s faith was in the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution was full of sober rules, the Declaration was political poetry. Even though the Declaration was only a formal protest against England, and not in itself a governing document, its language and aspirations for the individual can guide us to a deeper understanding of human dignity and orient us towards the ends we all hope for – human flourishing, not some cold, calculated “good enough for most.”
How often we’ve heard the words – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” – without recognizing their true power? Over 200 years, they’ve faded into the scenery, like any one tree in our ancient forest of history.
But this tree is special – it sustains us by its height and covers us with its canopy. The grandeur of its ideal causes us to look up from our day to day, to stop spitting in the eye of our opponents so that we may each direct our gaze to something bigger than ourselves. The Declaration’s call to equality and to the project of securing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all is the central, unifying mission of our nation.
Reading To Kill A Mockingbird, I think the Atticus portrayed in that novel was more of a “Declaration” Atticus than a “Constitution” Atticus. You could call him “Atticus I” to paraphrase a way of thinking popularized by Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “Adam I/Adam II” dichotomy in his review of Genesis.
Atticus I is all about the fair shake – equality of opportunity, providing representation to someone because it is right and just, regardless of popular opinion or who it benefits. He is the type of man who says to his daughter that he couldn’t hold her accountable if he didn’t do what he believed was right.
Like Atticus I, America has been through its idealist periods – the civil rights movement, the broad support for gay marriage even in the face of vitriolic opposition on the right. We even occasionally elect someone in a fit of idealism, such as John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama. In countless local communities, like Lewiston, ME, with its inclusive and successful soccer program in the face of backlash against refugees, small groups of citizens come together to put equal opportunity and the ideals of the Declaration to work, even in the midst of hatred.
Without that ideal, we’re left with just another government. Sure, we’ve got checks and balances. But, as Harper Lee knew, without hope and dignity to round out our view of the individual – whether ourselves or a stranger – that amounts to little more than in-fighting and despair, from Trump down to Atticus II. We’ve got the Founder’s system of government, but we lack the spirit – the call to that which is larger than our own concerns.
In our post-modern, post-religious, post-virtually-everything zeal, let’s not lose sight of the spirit that gives us the opportunity to hope and break barriers. Let’s choose the spirit of Atticus I: the spirit that fed Lincoln, Harper Lee, and hopefully, you and me.
If you’d like to reacquaint yourself with the Declaration of Independence, click here.
Do you think we’re more Atticus I or Atticus II as a country? Do you have ideas about the founding fathers or Abraham Lincoln? Share them in the comments below.
If you like Radio Free New England, please check out our social sites, subscribe via iTunes, and sign up to follow by email. Find out more on the right hand side bar.