Of Atticus Finch, “Go Set A Watchman,” And Icon Ethics

AtticusToday Harper Lee’s “sequel” to “To Kill A Mockingbird” is officially released, though reviews have already been published. The big story is that the new novel’s now grown “Scout” discovers during the civil rights upheavals of the 1950s that her father and hero Atticus Finch is a racist, had attended a Klan meeting, and is prone to saying things like …

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

The new Atticus is providing ammunition to those who enjoy tearing down American heroes and icons. Finch is perhaps the most revered fictional lawyer in American culture, admired by the public as well as the legal profession. The American Bar Association named its award for fictional portrayals of lawyers in films and literature after Finch, whose pro bono defense of a wrongly accused black man in a bigoted Alabama town forms the central conflict of Lee’s classic. Burnishing Atticus’s reputation further was the beloved portrayal of the character, reputedly based on the author’s father, by Gregory Peck in the Academy Award winning film adaptation. Peck received the Award for Best Actor as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and as a civil-rights activist often stated that he admired Finch over all his other roles. In 2003, American Film Institute voted Finch as the greatest hero in American film.Wrote Entertainment Weekly, “[Finch] transforms quiet decency, legal acumen, and great parenting into the most heroic qualities a man can have.”

Atticus, however, has had his detractors through the years, notable among them the late Monroe Freedman, a  habitual iconoclast and contrarian who wrote two law review articles declaring that Finch was neither hero nor a particularly admirable lawyer. He wrote in part:

One of the charges I have faced for past criticisms of Atticus Finch is “presentism.” This clumsy neologism is meant to express the idea that it is unfair to hold someone in an earlier time to moral standards that we recognize today. Lest anyone miss the point, this contention is derived from cultural relativ­ism. This is a philosophy that rejects the idea that there are any moral values that are absolute (or, at least, prima facie) and eternal. Instead, morality is equated with the notions of right and wrong that are recognized in the culture of a particular time and place. Slavery? Apartheid? Lynching? Sacrificing babies? Well, the cultural relativist says, we might, not approve, but who are we to judge the moral standards of people in another time or place?

So let me declare myself. I do believe that there are prima facie principles of right and wrong (which can be called Natural Law), which each of us is capable of recognizing by the use of experience, intellect, and conscience. There may not be many such principles of right and wrong, but the terrorizing of the Levy family, the attempted lynching of Tom Robinson, and the apartheid that Atticus Finch practiced every day of his life-those things are wrong today, and they were wrong in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s….

Throughout his relatively comfortable and pleasant life in Maycomb, Atticus Finch knows about the grinding, ever-present humiliation and degradation of the black people of Maycomb; he tolerates it; and sometimes he even trivializes and condones it.Nor does Finch need the presentism of a Northern ‘liberal six decades later to tell him that these things are wrong. He himself accurately diagnoses “Maycomb’s usual disease . . . rea­sonable people going stark raving mad when anything involv­ing a Negro comes up.”  “It’s all adding up,” he recognizes, “and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.” But he hopes that the struggle for justice won’t come during his children’s lifetimes.48 For Finch, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is inevitable, but decades too soon.

Freedman’s argument is that like so many others who knew that racism and Jim Crow were wrong, Atticus Finch chose to peacefully co-exist with his community’s bigotry and cruelty rather than actively oppose it as the figure of prestige and influence he was. He argues that…

…Atticus Finch never in his professional life voluntarily takes a pro bono case in an effort to ameliorate the evil-which he him­ self and others recognize-in the apartheid of Maycomb, Alabama….Here is a man who does not voluntarily use his legal training and skills-not once, ever-to make the slightest change in the pervasive social injustice of his own town.

When the reviews of “Go Set A Watchman” came out, Freedman’s colleagues immediately weighed in that the new novel proved that his assessment of Atticus finch was correct. Stephen Gillers, a prominent legal ethicist, wrote,

“If Monroe were still with us, he would rightly be reminding us that he always had his doubts about Atticus and had maintained his position despite much hostile reaction to his assault on Atticus’s character. But Monroe is not with us. So I thought it proper for us to recognize what is  surely a claim to vindication.”

Does the new novel—actually an old novel that predated the writing of “To Kill A Mockingbird” that mysteriously surfaced under questionable circumstances—“vindicate” Freedman’s Atticus-bashing?


To understand, one must keep in mind that there are four Atticus Finches involved, each distinct from the other.

The first Atticus is the character in the firts novel. Freedman’s careful and critical reading does find some disturbing aspects of this Atticus, though the purpose of the book was never to present Atticus Finch as a hero for the ages, but rather as a single father doing his best to raise his children wisely while also treating everyone in the small Southern town with respect and fairness. As a lawyer, and even Freedman doesn’t dispute this, Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson is zealous and competent, and to the extent that it involved opposing the predominant sentiments of his neighbors, courageous.

The second Atticus is the movie version, asplayed by Gregory Peck. None of the statements of the character or other features that Freedman noted are part of that Atticus, who was not even the creation of Harper Lee but another Southern writer, playwright Horton Foote. That Atticus may have been inspired by Lee’s character, but is an idealized version.

I’m a professional stage director and adapter, and I run a professional theater company. One thing you learn in my (other) profession is that the characters in plays are materially different from their movie avatars, and their book precedents, if any, are necessarily different from both.  It is unfair, however, to attribute the book Atticus’s background and words to the film Atticus: they may be nearly identical twins, but they are different individuals, with a different life story and personality traits. The film Atticus never expresses regrets about getting Tom’s case, for example. Criticism applied to the novel’s Atticus simply do not apply to Gregory Peck’s portrayal.

The book was published in 1960, and the film came out in 1962. The film defined Atticus Finch, not the novel. Foote’s and Peck’s Atticus is more familiar, by far, and known by more people than the Harper Lee version of Atticus. The film Atticus  is a hero: there is nothing about him that isn’t heroic. That is the Atticus Finch most Americans associate with the name, and the Atticus the ABA named its award after.

The third Atticus is the older, embittered man of “Go Set A Watchman.”  That Atticus cannot validate Monroe Freedman’s criticism of the Atticus of the firts novel, because he is literally a different character. In this latest novel, for example, Tom Robinson was acquitted, not shot trying to escape a mob. That means that this is a parallel universe Maycomb, Alabama, no more relevant to the Maycomb of the first novel than the nightmare Pottersville of “It’s A Wonderful Life” is related to Bedford Falls, and no more than Marty McFly’s alcoholic, plastic surgery-enhanced mother in “Back to the Future Part II” is the same character as his mother in “Back to the Future.” One cannot use either book’s Atticus to undo the popular admiration of the Atticus most people think of  as the epitome of an ethical lawyer and a good father—Gregory Peck’s version. Doing so is not just “presentism,” it is guilt by association.

Finally, we have the fourth Atticus, who is the Icon. He is most closely related to Peck’s Atticus, #3, but still distinct. There are many people who know Atticus Finch as the symbol of a brave, honest, just and skilled lawyer who is devoted to civil rights and equal treatment under the law who have never read the book and may not have seen the film. Atticus Finch #4 is the Good Lawyer, a role model for lawyers, and a beacon for the profession. The fact that the real Atticus, or any of them, may not come up to the standard of the Icon doesn’t matter, just as it doesn’t matter that Clarence Darrow the man was not as admirable as Clarence Darrow the Icon, or that the real John Wayne, unlike the war heroes he played so well, accepted a deferral to avoid service in World War II. Cultures need heroes, icons and role models, idealized though they may be.

It would be foolish, as well as unfair and wrong, to allow an early, unheroic version of Atticus Finch, previously discarded by its author and suddenly resuscitated in her dotage for someone’s monetary gain, to erode the cultural value of the hero and the icon who share his name.


22 thoughts on “Of Atticus Finch, “Go Set A Watchman,” And Icon Ethics

  1. It occurs to me that this scandal is driven in large part by our tendency to treat fictional characters as real people. We react to this new Atticus Finch as though this was new information about an old friend, rather than merely a new interpretation of an old idea. We ask “How could Atticus do such things?”, forgetting that he’s never done anything at all. Only Lee and Foote and Peck have done things, and nothing can undo what they’ve already done.

      • Not weird, just stupid. It can be hard to keep fiction separate from reality, especially in our subconscious, so many people just don’t, and many more people think they do but still get confused, even when they know better. I used to see it all the time in fanfiction and roleplaying.

        • Still, I suspect that if we weren’t subject to confusing our emotions about fiction and reality, we wouldn’t enjoy fiction nearly so much. If it didn’t pull us into its world, what would be the point? The trick is to get into it enough to enjoy it, but not so much that we send death threats to the actors when they do something we don’t like.

  2. Wow! You are good at what you do. Here I was all set in my views on the matter, and now I am having to rethink everything. For me personally on this topic I am most concerned today about people’s willingness to negate people’s good and admirable actions of the past based upon their foibles in the present day. From Bill Cosby to the upstanding TV preacher who finds himself in the midst of a scandal, people are rabid to say, “I told you so” or scream “Hypocrite.” It is a short-sighted and an “in the moment” mentality on the behalf of those individuals willing to judge, which really should come as no surprise in our “what have you done for me lately” culture. I have never understood how one’s present behavior significantly changes or invalidates a past message or action if it was ethical, moral, correct, and honorable in the first place. We are only human. Mistakes are going to be made along the journey. The individuals who find themselves in these predicaments need to be judged on the full body of their life’s work and not by just one or two chapters. Maybe we are going to have to go back to bestowing honors on people posthumously. There tends to be a lot less room for potential error when done so. Otherwise, we are going to be tearing down a few monuments to and taking back the awards of a lot of people in the future. Human beings cannot be held to this new “all or nothing” perfect life standard and their still be heros of any kind.

  3. I just hope this Atticus business does not get mixed-up with anything to do with the redemption of Pete Rose.

  4. Brahms destroyed about half his output because he deemed it unsuitable for publication. Why wasn’t Harper Lee’s wish that this book remain unpublished honored? She should have burned it. I’m not sure it’s more her fault for not doing so or these creeps who dredged this draft up and are cashing in on it. Dumb. Unethical all around.

    • Yes. The journalist who wrote the recent biography says that she was sufficiently aware to give consent—I doubt it. Why would she do this now, after all these years? She’s being exploited.

    • I’m still unsure about this. My mother has worked for years with programs for medicare recipients, including training for representatives of people with Alzheimers and dementia. In addition, she and I managed the care of my grandmother as her mental state declined. While representatives do have to be careful of abuse and manipulation, they also have to realize that the elderly are still human beings, and their opinions and priorities can change– in fact, they’re frequently dealing with failing health and disability, which would change anyone’s priorities, regardless of age.

      I’m not discounting the idea that Miss Lee was manipulated, but I consider it equally likely that, when presented with the idea of publishing the manuscript, she realized that the things that kept her from doing that years ago didn’t matter much anymore. How much of that might be dementia and how much a person looking around at her current situation and weighing harm vs. potential good? We can never really know that.

      • I think someone should be able to protect an artist in this situation, though. What if she decided to publish old pornographic stories she wrote in her teens? We know that for decades after her first novel, she insisted that she had only one good book in her, and that the stress of coming up to the level of the original was, she said, too much. We know that the book was rejected by her publisher, and also—now– that it undermines the image of her father as well as the iconic figure of Atticus she was so proud of. She doesn’t need the money, so what, other than declining judgment, confusion, or a third party’s machinations, would cause such a change of heart?

        This is lesson to authors and composers regarding the wisdom of destroying any work they would not want seen by the world.

        • Perhaps she decided that “living up” to her previous work wasn’t that important anymore, when she probably won’t be living with it that long. Maybe she always felt it said something important, and while she wanted to live with that iconic image of her father, she wanted history to have more nuance. Maybe she liked the idea of all the fuss it would cause, and she’s playing a practical joke on the whole country while she’s now safely out of public life. Maybe she saw a modern novel and decided that even her second rate work was better than what’s being published today, or maybe that’s just what they told her, and maybe they’re right.

          I agree, if one is sure one would never want something found, it should be destroyed. That does make me wonder whether she was always sure that she’d never want it seen, or whether she thought that it wouldn’t be so bad if people saw it posthumously. Because the latter could lead to all sorts of reasons why she might just go ahead and release it.

  5. It is true that John Wayne accepted a deferment during ww2 unlike his friends Clark Gable and Jimmy Steward. I think all and all he contributed more to the war effort by making movies like “They Were Expendable” and “The Sands of Iwo Jima” than he could have by becoming an officer in one of the armed services. He probably would have been relegated to making propaganda or military training films. He did do USO tours in the Pacific and nobody in their right mind could say he lacked courage. As far as a sequel book *To Kill A Mockingbird*, it was a horribly bad idea to write it. Atticus Finch as a racist? Please!

    • But its not a sequel, its only being presented that way to make money. It was written first and was basically the first draft of what became Mockingbird.

      • Right, and that especially undermines any argument that the Atticuses are related. From “Hey, this book is a downer. Why not write about the lessons a wise and brave version of your Dad taught a fictional version of you?” to “Look! Atticus aged into an old, bitter bigot!”

  6. “Cultures need heroes, icons and role models, idealized though they may be.”

    That’s the problem. It seems to have been decided that black and white are different col…uh…cultures. This proves it. See, the second book was all whitewash. Lee hid the true Atticus all the time. We KNEW it. What good is a white hero to a black person anyway?

    I am suspicious about the release of this book at this time. Instead of being of keen literary interest, where it belongs — it becomes incendiary in the “tens,” the Decade of Misunderstanding.

    p.s. While searching for actual information on the finding and publishing of Watchman, I came across a New Republic article which makes my fears seem petty by comparison. Though there’s no precise allusion to it in the article, it made me recall the too-good-to-be-true Hitler Diaries fraud. That feeling and the definite knowledge that in spite of Ellen’s (above) Alzheimer’s in-and-out of reality possibilities, the quotes and attitudes supposedly expressed by Lee do not jibe with her condition, and that significant lying by the “discoverers” of the ms. was going on, among other questionable activities. It could all be due to uncoordinated publicity hype, but I’m sticking my neck out: there is major chicanery going on. ww.newrepublic.com/article/122290/suspicious-story-behind-publication-go-set-watchman

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