Today 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.