Atticus Gets Real

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Book/film List / Legal Fictions

As a boy, I was deeply affected by the character of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus is not only the loving father of Scout and Jem, but also the brave lawyer who defended a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930’s Alabama. Before defending Tom in court, Atticus defended him from a lynch mob that attempted to storm the jail where Robinson was held. Unfortunately, Atticus’ eloquent appeal to the white jurors to rise above racial prejudice was unsuccessful. The jury quickly convicted his client, but the blacks in the audience still stood to honor Atticus as he left the courtroom.

But as we grow older childhood infatuations are vulnerable to knowledge about how the world really operates. A colleague questioned why Atticus would choose to make a plea for tolerance to an all-white Southern jury instead of challenging the racial make-up of the jury. I never had an adequate answer to that question.

The recent publication of Lee’s lost first novel Go Set a Watchmen plants more seeds of doubt about my idealization of Atticus. The “new” book takes place in the 1950’s, fifteen years after the events recounted in To Kill a Mockingbird, in a South recently shocked by the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Bd. of Education. Scout’s beloved Atticus is now active in the White Citizens Council’s fight to resist the Court’s attack on segregation. He voices opinions that today could only be termed “racist.” One starts to suspect that his defense of Tom Robinson was more a show of a Southern gentleman’s gallantry towards a cause he knew was lost than an exercise in zealous advocacy. Probably Atticus made his eloquent plea to the jury in full knowledge it would be ignored. The forms of law would be followed, but not its substance.

Go Set A Watchman suggests an even less admirable scenario. Early in the book, Atticus and his law partner are discussing the case of a young black man accused of a crime. Atticus says they should volunteer to represent him free of charge to make sure that he does not fall into the grasp of the NAACP lawyers who will make a federal case out of the situation. Might Atticus have taken Tom Robinson’s for a similar reason? If this were true, Atticus’ true purpose would have been to not provide Robinson zealous advocacy, but to prevent him for obtaining it.

But upon reflection I now think, whatever its weaknesses as a work of art, that the new book does us all a service by making Atticus “real.” We’re better off removing Atticus from his pedestal and seeing him more like ourselves, balancing all sorts of considerations in deciding how we live our personal and professional lives.

We are quick to recognize our duty to “zealously represent” our clients, but fail to recognize that “zealous” is a word not easy to define in any given circumstance. Does it mean to do everything legally possible no matter the cost and the improbability of success? If that were true, clients like Tom Robinson would never find a lawyer in the real world. But that still leaves the difficult question of how much less than everything possible is acceptable without failing the lawyer’s duty.

We should follow Scout’s lead in Go Set a Watchman as she evaluates the “new” Atticus. She is disillusioned when she hears of her father’s views on race, but then realizes that he voiced them in her presence for a reason. He wanted his adult daughter to know him as he was, not as she dreamed him to be when she was a child. She finds she can love and admire him without accepting his views on race. I agree. Atticus didn’t do everything possible for Tom Robinson, but, despite his views, he did a lot more than anyone else was willing to do.

I think we should do the same. Let’s retire Atticus the God and honor the loving father and brave lawyer who defended a poor black man in Alabama’s courts without fee because he thought it was the right thing to do. But let’s not forget his unacceptable racial views either, and the suffering those views caused and continue to cause blacks.

Once we have managed to take an adult view of Atticus, we can try to show the same maturity in assessing national political figures. We really don’t know Barack Obama or HIlary Clinton other than what we read in the papers and see on television. It’s too easy to see them as storybook heroes or villains to root for or hiss than as flesh-and-blood human beings with strengths and weaknesses much like our own.

Why don’t we reject the simplistic images of politicians, positive and negative, and try to understand them as professionals attempting to balance principle and ambition and myriad other personal concerns as they climb the greasy pole of electoral politics? Seeing them as multi-dimensional characters would lead to more honest political discussions, and maybe even better policies.


  1. Jim Barry says

    Hey John:

    Good blog! I take it you read the new book? I have been decided against it. What do you think?

    All is well here.



    • I would not recommend the book on its own; it often reads like a first draft, but it does give us a deeper understanding of what she was attempting to accomplish in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”


  2. In both novels, Atticus is used as a vehicle to criticize a sordid and repressive society that reinforces its stability at the cost of the submission and destruction of those who attempt to deflate, undermine, or overtly challenge the status-quo.


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