“Atticus Finch is a racist in Harper Lee’s recently released novel,” Kirstie sadly tweeted yesterday morning. “Currently questioning my entire existence.” I sympathize.
In Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, Scout Finch, the gutsy child in To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a 26-year old woman who learns that her heroic father Atticus is in reality a Klan bigot. It’s a heart-breaking moment for daughter Scout, for the Library Association, and for American literature. Or is it?
Author Nelle Harper Lee, an intensely private person, avoided colleges but in the fall of 1964, she came to the United States Military Academy at West Point to speak to us lowly Plebes. Diminutive on a large stage in our cannon-firing fortified campus, she spoke with quiet dignity of demonstrating love and tenderness toward our enemies. Magically, the gentle caress of her soft Southern voice began to shift our toughening personas, forming quiet moral tides that we would need when we later became officers, husbands, and fathers.
English to the Chinese ear is not easy, but her talk in the dialect of the South inspired me to become an American novelist. In libraries and our surviving book stores, Gus Lee books, due to alphabetical dictates, can touch Harper Lee’s. Not long after her life-changing talk, a new professor named Major H. Norman Schwarzkopf reported to West Point. He would advance that moral voice and touch my life like a brick hitting a plate glass window.
As a kid, I’d feared non-Chinese people. Reared in a black ‘hood, I learned to worry about white folk. But the YMCA, West Point, and the Army tried to teach me to fix my own deficiencies instead of judging and blaming others. I learned that it’s an American habit to be harshly critical and even unforgiving whenever we fail to do the right thing.
While Harper Lee penned Mockingbird, she spoke with her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a distinguished Alabama lawyer. I imagine her wise and melodious voice detailing a more perfect world that stirred the fires of his deep conscience. From blue, say the Chinese, comes deeper blue; the young can surpass the old. I knew she’d learned some of her wisdom from her papa, and, like the Beatles, she had taken a sad song and made it better.
One evening, long ago, in a far-off disciplined military auditorium, an irresistible voice penetrated the fatigue and stress of a tired freshman class. That voice helped us realign our moral chemistry to a True North; it has spoken to our national conscience ever since.
We admire people of courage who stand for the right. As a former deputy DA, I admired Atticus Finch and his principled stand for the persecuted and innocent Tom Robinson.
But I am inspired more deeply by the privileged who sacrifice self-interest to serve as courageous moral examples. When a distinguished segregationist father loves his daughter and the deeper verities to become the iconic Atticus Finch, I am given the courage of his example, for I have found that stories of moral self-improvement are more powerful than tales of brave stands. The prophet Isaiah said, 2700 years ago, that we should set a watchman to call out that which is right. That the watchman was once blind to his own faults is to capture each of us in our humanity, and to set our eyes aright is to become Atticus Finch.
When you set a watchman in your own life, what behaviors are farthest from True North?