(A nation turns its lonely eyes to you — woo, woo, woo)
With our current president serving as a male-role-model-in-chief, yes indeed, where have you gone Atticus Finch? Trump makes toxic masculinity seem admirable.
My book group knows me well. Whenever we review a book with an above-average male character, they want to know if he made the cut. My list is woefully small, at least considering United States literature. I am spoiled; I read To Kill a Mockingbird. The movie was even better. We need more Atticus Finches.
Do not be confused by the rock’em, sock’em, shoot’em up, blow’em up titanic and intergalactic clashes, car chases to end all car chases, enough physicality to pummel Samson and Goliath into dust in the wind, and then be a beau to all beauties. In today’s Hollywood, the gap between the physical feats of Jason Bourne and Tom Cruise (aren’t they both kind of short?) and comic book creatures and hulks is narrow. I am not talking about the male central characters of Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, or even John Grisham — although Grisham’s males are a bit more layered.
Too many of today’s males hide their fears and vulnerabilities behind Hummers, Harleys, monster trucks, NASCAR, weekend war games, marathons, triathlons, and even cooking competitions like Iron Chef and Hell’s Kitchen. It is all about being the best –winning. To quote Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.” I would proffer that whoever reached any pinnacle, lost a lot on the way to the top.
Having read over 200 books in my 20 years with my book group, literature is replete with tough, layered, moral, physically appealing, yet flawed and vulnerable women characters. Give me five literary men those previous descriptors would fit.
I did not major in literature or anthropology, but my perspective as to why there are so many women, and so few men, could be because women have fought a timeless struggle to make it in a man’s world, in hand-to-hand combat with men’s rules, not allowed to vote until 1920, predators, misogyny, sexism, glass ceiling, and less pay. Literature is one way to level the playing field, even if only in literary context.
Not that any of these authors set out to level the playing field, but these books come to mind: Homegoing by Ya Gyasi, My Antonio by Willa Cather, Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
When I developed the plotline of my new book, Blackberries Are Red When Green, I was determined to face this literary shortfall, creating a strong, male character Gregory Peck would have wanted to portray. Okay, maybe not Gregory. My character, Dutch Clemons, is a retired Pullman Porter. Maybe Morgan Freeman?
A favorite To Kill A Mockingbird movie quote from Atticus Finch:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”
In my book, as Dutch and young Kurt loll the day away down the riverbank waiting for the fish to bite, Dutch is learning 10-year-old Kurt about black music: jazz, blues, ragtime and spirituals. (The story’s setting is in northcentral Indiana in the late 1950s when the descriptor was still Negro.)
The conversation begins with Dutch telling Kurt:
“A pianist name of Fats Waller wrote this famous blues song, at least among my kind, name of ‘Black and Blue’:
Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Feel like ol’ Ned wished I was dead
What did I do to be so black and blue.”
“Dutch, you’re not black. Brown, I would say.”
“And you’re not white.”
“I’m confused. You folks are Negroes, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but that’s mostly the current white folk label for my kind…So amongst ourselves, we are beginning to refer to ourselves as black. But even saying black and white, I call the lazy way of folks looking at things. To many, white represents pureness, and Negro, or black, represents something bad…If a person just thinks of us as black and all alike, then they don’t have to spend any thought or effort to get to know the person under the skin.”
Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mockingbird, crafted many “teachable moment” quotes. So much so, that Atticus seems too perfect. But it works, maybe because as a widowed father, he wore two hats: mother and father. He wore both well. He understood his dual responsibility.
In an earlier scene, Atticus took a book, chair, light and shotgun and sat outside the city jail to protect a charged man with a lynching. Would he have fired the shotgun in confrontation with the mob? We will never know. It is a novel, after all. How would you have written that scene?
In another scene he shot a rabid dog, Scout and Jem surprised by his sharpshooter skills.
The essence of Atticus Finch is captured in the final scene of the movie To Kill A Mockingbird. The voiceover intones: “He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”
The release of Go Set a Watchman betrayed and defaced the pedestal I erected for Atticus. A hopeless romantic, I will cling to the earlier portrayal.
In the end, when it comes to strong male characters or any strong character, one does not need to turn our lonely eyes to Atticus Finch. One needs only to look in the mirror, step up and do the right thing.