Thursday, September 16, 2010

Braxton Bragg Underwood

On the night that Jem follows his father to the Courthouse where Atticus sits, prepared to defend Tom Robinson against a lynch mob, the reader learns that Atticus is not one man against the mob, three children at his knee. Mr. Braxton Bragg Underwood, the newspaper editor, is across the street with a double-barreled shotgun aimed at the old Sarum bunch. Underwood had Atticus covered the whole time, a fact that somewhat surprises Atticus because Underwood is a known racist.

Even so, Mr. Underwood loses sleep to prevent a lynching. Later, the editor compares Robinson’s loss to the “senseless slaughter of songbirds,” thereby expressing sorrow and tying Robinson to the title of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. A mockingbird is the one bird that Atticus’ father told his son never to kill because a mockingbird does no harm to others and should be protected. Thus, Mr. Underwood takes a stand in behalf of at least one wronged African-American and asserts Robinson’s innocence by equating him to the harmless bird.

Why? Lee leaves Underwood’s motives for the reader to infer from facts such as these:
• A lynch mob is lawlessness. It is men, often full of liquor, determined to deliver a brute form of justice. It is a bully defeating a weakling just because he can.
• On the night in question, the people who stood between the mob and Tom Robinson were Atticus, his children, and Dill. Mr. Underwood was prepared to deliver a judgment of his own if anyone tried to harm Atticus on his way to Tom Robinson.
• Tom Robinson’s death was indeed a waste, an impulsive show of force. Tom ran for the fence and did not stop when told to do so, but he was a one-armed man. He could not have climbed that fence before someone reached him. Deadly force was not required.

From these textual facts, readers may conclude that Braxton Bragg Underwood admired Atticus enough to protect him. We might also presume that Mr. Underwood believed in the law and disapproved of men, even prison guards, taking justice into their own hands, especially when due deliberation could save a man’s life.

Thus, Mr. Underwood embodies the conviction and courage that inspires readers of Lee’s novel. However minor his role, however racist he may be, Underwood rises above his own skewed perception of the human race to act in behalf of the vulnerable and to speak in defense of the disenfranchised.

These are acts that we should demand from our leaders, soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and everyday heroes; we should expect them to be the true defenders of our better selves.