To Kill A Finch

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I taught high school for ten years in a rural Southern country school that split about 50/50 in every demographic category from family income to race. In my years there, I tried to pound Romeo and Juliet, Beowulf, The Scarlet Letter, and many other “classics” of the “canon” into the heads of my students to little or no avail. They froze at Faulkner, swore at Steinbeck, spit upon Shakespeare, and freaked over Fitzgerald. Freshmen through Seniors, I taught them all and they were uniform in only two things: a deep, abiding hatred of every “canon” novel save one and a deep, enduring love of that one singular book.

That book, of course, is and was To Kill a Mockingbird, lovingly abbreviated in my lesson plans as TKAM, e.g. “TSWBAT id inferred MI in TKAM chapter 10.”I

No matter the level, race, gender, or present grade of the student, each loved To Kill A Mockingbird in his or her own way. We had some awkward — extremely awkward at times — discussions about race and slavery as one would expect, but we also had some fascinating talks about poverty and social hierarchy. One of my favorite discussions, and one which seems extremely prophetic given what’s going on in our country today, began with me asking the question of my class, “Y’all think anything has really changed since the time period in this novel?” What followed was a quartet of angry young black guys declaring that absolutely nothing had
changed and we spent the rest of the hour talking about explicit versus implicit prejudices and open versus hidden racism. One extremely articulate young man remarked he preferred talking to “rednecks” because “at least with a [Confederate battle] flag wearin’ redneck, I know where I stand. I KNOW what he thinks about me. Some of these ‘polite’ folk, I’m not so sure of.” Finally, when we were wrapping up the novel, several threads would develop, but the one EVERY class noticed was simple — Atticus Finch was a “good man.”

For five and one half decades, the opinion of Atticus Finch as “a good man” has reigned virtually unchallenged except for a few screwballs from either side of the Right / Left spectrum whom Jesus Christ would not be able to please. Atticus has remained the standard of what a lawyer should be, namely the defender of the weak against the strong no matter how foregone the conclusion to the struggle because – in the words of the man himself – it doesn’t matter if you know “you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” That is true moral courage. Few literary characters are held in the esteem so many hold Atticus. I know of no less than five teachers and professors who named their children Atticus because they hoped the name would convey their hopes for their sons’ characters.

Now it seems someone would sling mud upon Atticus’ good name. He who has stood for so long as the paragon of virtue and the sane voice of reason in a world of hate and innuendo is now subjected to what can only be described as slings and arrows of the most outrageous fortune. What makes this slanderous attempt to sully a good man’s reputation is made so much the crueler by its origin. The leader of the pack of dogs who would tear Atticus down from his rightly deserved pedestal atop the list of iconic and heroic characters is none other than Nellie Harper Lee, Atticus’ own inventor — his literary mother as it were.

After five decades of silence, an aging Harper Lee has once again taken the literary world by storm with her publication of Go Set a Watchman. She claims this is the novelTo Kill A Mockingbirdwas supposed to be all those years ago before an editor told her to make Scout younger. I have no idea. What I DO know is this latest novel assassinates Atticus Finch by turning him from a shining light of dignity and decency in Maycomb into a bitter, white robe wearing Klansman. Far from the heroic country lawyer fighting a losing battle against racism, Watchmanpaints him as possibly the most powerful force for racism in the town. As readers, we are left wondering…….WHY?

If this is the novel Lee intended to publish, she should thank the editor who blocked it. This novel is thoroughly post-modern in that it has no heroes, only degrees of villains; it offers no hope, only more despair. It’s as if, as Lee herself enters her dotage years, she insists on dragging Atticus with her.

Love Y’all and keep your feet clean!

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