Last post, I wrote about the Southern paradoxes in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Today, I want to look at the opening of the novel because Scout traces the events of the novel deep into our nation’s history, before Jem, Scout, or Atticus arrived on the scene. This is important because for all of the missed moments of reflection in the novel, the first three pages provide a lot of insight into the deep rooted prejudices and racism that nourish the ground in Maycomb, Alabama.
In the opening three paragraphs, Scout looks back at the events that led up to the culmination of the novel. She talks about Jem’s broken elbow and how he feared it would hinder his ability to play football. With the ability to look backwards and contemplate what occurred in Maycomb, Jem said, “it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.” Here, we get the foreshadowing of the children trying to lure Boo Radley outside of his house. As well, if, as I argue in the previous post, Radley represents the community’s inability to produce non-racist children or adults who fight back against oppressive systems, then their ideas can be read as their subconscious desires to free themselves from the nation’s racist past.
Scout disagrees with Jem. She goes back to Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act, an act that displaced the Cherokee, Creek, and other tribes and paved the way for the expansion of slavery further inland from the coastal areas. This is when slavery prominently expanded into more parts of Georgia and Alabama. She asks, “If Andrew Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t?” If the Indian Removal Act did not pave the way for slavery’s expansion and expansion into Alabama, then the Finches may well have never arrived in Maycomb.
Settling the argument before it becomes physical, Atticus tells Jem and Scout they are both right. Through this, Atticus points out the contemporary impetus for the events in the novel, but he also points out the historical roots that led to the contemporary moment. Those roots, like cancer, have metastasized, a Lillian Smith writes about segregation in “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way” (1956). She states,
The tragic fact is, neither cancer nor segregation will go away while we close our eyes. Both are dangerous diseases that have to be handled quickly and skillfully because they spread, they metastasize throughout the organism. We have seen this happen, too often, to people who have delayed doing anything about cancer. We have also seen sick race relations metastasize throughout the country–and indeed throughout the whole earth.
Atticus knows the diseased roots underneath Maycomb, and looking back, Scout sees them as well. She continues by lamenting that as a Southerner the Finches could not trace any of their relatives back to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, thus they could not trace their lineage back to that pivotal moment of English history. Instead, they traced it back to “Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was exceeded only by his stinginess.” He was nothing special, but he was very religious, leaving England because he “was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren.”
There are two things about Simon’s move from England that stand out. The first is he was Methodist, one of the most progressive and egalitarian denominations of the period. William Apess talks about this some in his autobiography A Son of the Forest. The other aspect that arises is that Simon left because of persecution. Thus, others treated him negatively, looking down upon him, and he escaped “across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, then to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens.”
Even with this background, Simon succumbed to racism becoming an enlsaver when he bought three individuals and “established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River.” This homestead would become Finch’s Landing, a spot that the family owed since the enslaved men and women built it. Finch’s Landing appears in the novel, and it appears as a respite, a place where the family goes on holidays, an escape from the city of Maycomb and its trappings. In this way, it serves as a pastoral spot, but its appearance is devoid of the brutal history that birthed it into existence.
In her description of Finch’s Landing, Scout refers only to the Finch men before the Civil War. She does not refer to the women or the enslaved or subjugated who allowed the Finch men to “make their living from cotton.” She says, “The place was self-sufficient: modest in comparison with the empires around it, the Landing, nevertheless, produced everything required to sustain life,” except for a few items.
During “the disturbance between the North and the South,” the Finches lost “everything but their land.” The land remained, and that land continued on to Jem and Scout’s time. Atticus left the land, becoming a lawyer, thus breaking the family lineage. Again, in her postbellum description, Scout erases the Black laborers who worked the land, probably as share croppers. We do get Calpurnia, who worked at Finch’s Landing and moved with Atticus to Maycomb. Even with her, though, we do not see her family, her inferiority, or anything else. All we get is her interactions with the Finch family.
Scout continues by describing Atticus’ early career, talking about his first case and other items. She concludes by stating, “He liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb County born and bred; and he knew his people, they knew him, and because of Simon Finch’s industry, Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town.” Does “every family” just mean every white family? Or, does it mean the Black families as well? If the latter, then this statement draws attention, very vaguely without any commentary, to the brutality of slavery and the sexual exploitation that occurred.
This opening sets the stage for To Kill A Mockingbird, and it provides a history of male whiteness, erasing Blacks and women. It points to England, with Simon, as the birth of Finch’s Landing and Maycomb. It points to his individual industry, eschewing those he enslaved and those who presumably worked for him as sharecroppers. They become invisible labor. It points to the hypocrisy of a religion that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” yet enslaves that neighbor.
Lillian Smith, in “The White Christian and His Conscience” begins by proclaiming, “Ever since the first white Christian enslaved the first black man, the conscience of America has been hurting.” Scout is a product of that hurting conscience. Even though she does not recognize it in her description of her family’s history, she suffers from this history. The whole novel contains this paradoxical tension between right and wrong, Christianity and racism that Lillian Smith tackles. However, I think that Lee falls way short in probing these issues. She lets them arise then fall away without comment. Even with Scout as the narrator, there could be more interrogation, right?
I want to end with a quote from Smith’s essay. After discussing how the Nazis perpetrated horrendous atrocities against their fellow human beings during their regime, she writes,
And we? Let us look at ourselves in humility and honesty: The white man in America is willing neither to give up Jesus nor to give up the slave. He was willing neither to give up democracy, nor white supremacy. He was willing neither to give up his conscience nor his way of life. Today he is still unwilling–with the result that in many areas of his life, he has given up his sanity instead. We cannot understand American and race without understanding the role that conscience has played in our national drama and our personal lives–and is still playing today.
Does Scout deeply interrogate “the role of conscience” in her own life? In the community? She questions it, yes. But, does she dive into those questions? Or, do they just float by like particles of dust in the sunlight, aimlessly hovering in mid-air, held aloft by the myths of race?
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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