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Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was. (13.28)
Scout's definition of "Fine Folks" is based on what their actions are (something they have control over), while Aunt Alexandra's is based on their family history (uh, can't help the crazy cousins). No rags-to-riches stories for her. She wants good solid staying-in-one-place-ness. While Scout's version allows people to get better through individual choice, in Aunt Alexandra's eyes, quality is a function of time more than anything.
There was indeed a caste system in Maycomb, but to my mind it worked this way: the older citizens, the present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shadings, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time. Thus the dicta No Crawford Minds His Own Business, Every Third Merriweather Is Morbid, The Truth Is Not in the Delafields, All the Bufords Walk Like That, were simply guides to daily living: never take a check from a Delafield without a discreet call to the bank; Miss Maudie Atkinson's shoulder stoops because she was a Buford; if Mrs. Grace Merriweather sips gin out of Lydia E. Pinkham bottles it's nothing unusual—her mother did the same. (13.32)
Family is destiny. Limiting? Sure.There's no way for a person to be different from their parents. But it allows people to indulge themselves without being judged because general opinion is that they can't help themselves.
"Atticus told me one time that most of this Old Family stuff's foolishness because everybody's family's just as old as everybody else's. I said did that include the colored folks and Englishmen and he said yes."
"Background doesn't mean Old Family," said Jem. "I think it's how long your family's been readin' and writin'. Scout, I've studied this real hard and that's the only reason I can think of. Somewhere along when the Finches were in Egypt one of 'em must have learned a hieroglyphic or two and he taught his boy." Jem laughed. "Imagine Aunty being proud her great-grandaddy could read an' write—ladies pick funny things to be proud of." (23.41-42)
Jem and Scout try to come up with a definition of Aunt Alexandra's mysterious term "background." Literacy isn't a bad approach—literacy means education, which means having a certain class and wealth status. But maybe it's just pride, after all. Maybe it's just knowing that you're better than other people, and coming up with justifications for that after the fact.