Thursday, August 13, 2015

Wrecking our Idols: Harper Lee, Atticus Finch, and Go Set a Watchman

On June 19th, I said goodbye to my Grandfather, a man whose peculiar quirks have more than a little to do with why I am the way I am. Had I not invested time in my relationship with him, I would have missed out on a number of invaluable lessons about living in the world. The same can be said of the old man Finch we meet in the pages of Harper Lee's new novel, Go Set a Watchman. So, what can we teach from this sudden literary surprise? To explain, you need to know a bit more about my grandfather.


One of the things I learned the most from my grandfather was patience and gentleness. At 6' 6" and 250 pounds, I am not a small person. My parents and my grandfather both pushed the idea that if I got into fights, I would be more likely to hurt someone by virtue of being larger than that person. For the most part I followed that wisdom, getting to this point in my life with a completely countable number of real physical fights. My grandfather's gentleness, however, was born of something darker: as a child, he was severely abused by his mother. While we cannot know the ways our lives will work, my grandfather's life took the most extraordinary of turns. While at Clark Air Force Base in the 1970s, he was instrumental in the returning POWs from North Vietnamese prison camps to their loved ones, helped in the coordination of Operation Babylift, and the construction of the Clark Air Force Base Peace Garden dedicated to all of those lost in Vietnam or listed as missing-in-action. Later, in 1978, while serving as base chaplain at Dover Air Force Base, he consoled the families of the Jonestown massacre, men, women, and children duped into a mass suicide.


As he got older, his views seemed to become different, his earlier philosophies becoming something others in my family no longer recognized. This change caused tension and disappointment within the family, but the love and respect we all felt did not change. Despite all of this, he was still a man, and men have "a man's heart, and a man's failings" (Lee 265). My grandfather, despite the great love in his heart for all people, did not always know how to show that love to those closest to him. He was once-divorced, twice-married. He could become angry. He had high expectations for those around him and could be downright cruel without intending to be when those expectations were not met. In short, he was human.


The contemporary tone of youth culture would immediately have me shrug my grandfather off, to relegate him to the dusty bin of old memories and people who "don't get me." I could not be happier with the fact that I did not. Every summer, until I reached high school, I went to Camp Grandpa. He took me to the inner harbor in Baltimore and the Smithsonian museums of Washington, D.C. We went monument hunting, seeking out new and unusual monuments that we had not seen before.


So it is with great disappointment that I see another old man suddenly relegated to the bin of social outcasts that our tolerant and evolved society chooses not to tolerate. It never ceases to amaze me that the people who scream the loudest about tolerance have so little of it. In my current school, some students who hear others use racist or genderist language have only one form of reaction: violent and vile invective. The stream of curses and inappropriate language that comes spewing forth erases every impassioned speech for tolerance each of them has ever given. And so Atticus Finch is revealed as less than an ideal, as less than a perfect golden idol in the pantheon of Humanism, and the tolerance police lose their minds.


Take for example this story. In it, the parents of the poor child, "Lucas" nee "Atticus," claim that somehow the new novel undermines the values of To Kill a Mockingbird. On the father's Facebook page, the following can be found:
As many of you know, Harper Lee's second book was recently released, depicting Atticus Finch as a pro-segregationist. We chose this name for our son over a year ago because we felt then that it embodied a beautiful form of selfless integrity. In light of the new book and the fact that our son is so young, we no longer feel comfortable using this name.

The problem is one of knee-jerks and that same contemporary youth culture that rejects the older generation out-of-hand. It is my firm belief that we have more to learn from the Atticus of Watchman than the Atticus of Mockingbird and our overindulgence of tolerance is the reason why.


If we take the time to consider the word tolerance, we can see that it is a poor substitute for its intended sentiment. Tolerance means "the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with." Tolerate means "allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference" or "accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance" or be capable of continued subjection to (a drug, toxin, or environmental condition) without adverse reaction." None of these sound particularly pleasing. I mean, consider this: you run into a friend on the street and that person says "Hello. I just wanted you to know that I tolerate you." Not exactly the warm reception you were looking for. Perhaps it is time to change our cultural lexicon and substitute acceptance for tolerance.


Atticus Finch, as portrayed in the novel Go Set a Watchman, embodies tolerance. Jean Louise, as Scout is known as an adult, shows how the surface of tolerance and the real feelings embodied underneath has broken her faith in the one man she so deeply trusted in:
I'll never forgive you for what you did to me. You cheated me, you've driven me out of my home and now I'm in a no-man's-land but good--there's no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I'll never be entirely at home anywhere else. (Lee 248)

The dissonance of the tolerant man disrupts her word view so fully that even Atticus has to realize that he has "killed" her (252). The thing is, this death is one all of us must die in order to be reborn. As Jim Burke puts it in his ODONO Cycle (or the Cycle of Literature, Life, and Learning), Jean Louise (and by extension the rest of us) has experienced a sudden disorientation, a sudden break with all of the things we thought we knew and believed. As with anything, this suffering will bring about pain, fear, and a variety of other unpleasant emotions; however, like the cycle, the lesson does not end at disappointment.


What our students need most is a model for how their parents' beliefs and behaviors reproduce in them so that they can recognize the value of critically reviewing this received wisdom. As Frost puts it, he will tell the story of his journey "with a sigh," the sigh of the wise speaking to the young, that he took the road less traveled and it made all the difference. The trouble is, he takes great pains to identify earlier in the poem that the traffic along the two paths had "worn them really about the same." This revelation nullifies Frost's pronouncement at the end, causing the reader some pause when taking Frost at his word. This skepticism about received wisdom runs throughout his work, especially poems like "Mending Wall," and it is usually the type of thematic topic I encounter the most resistance in teaching.


In April 2014, the results from a joint MTV/David Binder Research study showed that while Millenials value diversity, there is a real difference in the ways that real world experience affects people who are white and those of color. Their overwhelming belief in the universality of equality, however, creates some "key differences in some core beliefs":


  • While 48% of the White Millenials surveyed agreed that "discrimination  against White people has become as big a problem as discrimination against racial minority groups," only 27% of Millenials of Color agreed.
  • While only 39% of the White Millenials surveyed agreed that "White people have more opportunities today than racial minority groups," 65% of Millenials of color agreed.
  • While 41% of the White Millenials surveyed agreed that "The government pays too much attention to the problems of racial minority groups," only 21% of Millenials of Color agreed.
This data is troubling, but not as troubling as the fact that most of those surveyed concluded that "open conversation about bias will reduce prejudice, but they’re uncomfortable with the subject and don’t know how to start the discussion." What an opportunity for we, as teachers of English (particularly literature), to take the lead and model this conversation in the classroom. The trouble is that we have to look at works that may offend or discomfort us. If we are to address the staggering deficit of "just 20% who are comfortable having a conversation about bias," we have to show the 48% who "believe it is wrong to draw attention to someone’s race even if you are being positive...and... [the] (54%) [who] agree that it is hard to have a respectful conversation about bias in person or online," how those who have come before them have managed to transfer their understanding of race and human nature to a more accepting and open society.


That is the value at the core of Jean Louise's fight with Atticus. Jean Louise is confused; she knows what Atticus has raised her to believe, but is flabbergasted when she sees her father showing the less overt racial biases she never detected. Even Atticus, who understands the transformation Jean Louise is experiencing, recognizes the difference in his daughter; however, it is his reaction that allows us to show students how conversation can help bring understanding. Jean Louise is uncomfortable and reluctant to have this confrontation with a man she has respected her entire life. She even vomits forcefully in their former backyard (now converted to an ice cream shop by one of the Coninghams from Old Sarum). Despite all of the trepidation and violent invective (she calls Atticus a "ring-tailed son-of-a-bitch"), Atticus responds with "I love you" and "As you please." When she finally crosses the line from rational argument to fiery invective (see previous ring-tailed epithet), Atticus simply says "That'll do." He stops the conversation from becoming an irrational and angry fight, letting Jean Louise say her piece without judgment.


If we stop reading at this point, the novel remains a dark iconoclastic place where our childhood heroes devolve into mindless villains, but this is Harper Lee and we should know better. After a sudden and violent call to her senses delivered by the bizarrely Yoda-esque figure of Uncle Jack Finch, Jean Louise is asked to consider the conversation and the MAN with whom she spoke. She is brought to the understanding that she must have her own mind, explained in a clever birth metaphor by her wise uncle. Jean Louise has to learn to accept that part of her past that has made her who she is, but leave behind that which she can not believe. She sees the value in what Atticus has given her, but recognizes that he is a man with faults all his own. If she focuses only on the faults, if she denies her father, she must also deny the part of herself that walks in other people's shoes, that reasons with compassion and sees everyone, not just the white majority, as human beings.


The title really says it all. Go Set a Watchman comes from a bible verse stated once outright in the novel and then used as an allusion by Uncle Jack in their final conversation. Isaiah 6:21 says "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, / Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth." The context of the novel is the 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the subsequent forced integration that states like Alabama were undergoing "with all deliberate speed." The older generations, driven by years of socially reinforced racial segregation, are panicked by what this will mean for their communities. The younger generations have the burden, as they almost always do, of figuring out how they will live in this changing world without having much of a voice in how the changes will occur. So, Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise that "every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his conscience," that she must do what she believes to be right by her own mind (Lee 264-5). In validating Jean Louise's conscience, Jack helps her drop the anger and maintain her relationships; after all, important conversations cannot occur without strong relationships forming the bonds that keep the two parties talking. Were Atticus to only see his daughter as an upstart youngin' full of anger and rebellion, he would not necessarily listen to her; if Jean Louise sees her father as nothing but an ignorant bigot, the same occurs.


With models like this one, we can show students that despite the discomfort, these conversations are meaningful and need to occur; moreover, we can show them how they convert tolerance to acceptance. Jean Louise becomes a model for their own confused uncertainty; Atticus becomes the model of an adult with whom students can converse, full of his own convictions but willing to listen to the differences opinion can create. In the end, Jean Louise appreciates her father's willingness to fall from the pedestal upon which she has placed him; the final scene of the novel shows her as the dutiful daughter, picking her father up from work, but also as the separate adult in her own right, recognizing her father as her "old enemy" (Lee 278). While Atticus's fall from grace also makes me "tremble a little" with disappointment, I also recognize that his humanness is what makes him a great role model. His willingness to step outside his personal beliefs not once but, as the novel explains, twice, reveals the old Atticus we receive through Scout's childish eyes, but his belief in the superiority of one race over another shows that all the idols of our childish days must be set aside in pursuit of our own ideals, our own conscience.


A lot of what I believe to be right--about human compassion, about the dangers of violent conflict, about the value of remembering our past to create a brighter future--came from my Grandfather. The pedestal upon which I placed him as a child helped me create the foundation for my conscience, a conscience that eventually came into conflict with some of what he said later in life. We did not always get along, but the love and respect that began in my childhood kept us at the table talking. The frankness of our conversations showed me the value in discussing the things that are most difficult.


In the classroom, this frankness has led to studies of novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, and Native Son, novels that speak directly to dangerous and difficult topics like race and power. For ideas on getting your discussion started, check out Project Implicit at Harvard or the Anti-Defamation League. The conversations you have in your classroom may be difficult, but can lead to a more accepting and open world.

1 comment:

Mark Miazga said...

Really enjoyed reading this, Dan.