Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the November 2015 edition of North Carolina Lawyer.
By Amber Nimocks
Since Harper Lee breathed Atticus Finch to life in 1960, no other fictional attorney has had such a hold on the American psyche.
The figure of an altruistic Southern lawyer standing up for what’s right in the face of a deeply unjust society in “To Kill A Mockingbird” has inspired millions as a model of dedication to justice, patience and paternal wisdom. But this summer’s publication of Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman,” which presented a new, more difficult view of the character, left us wondering what members of the N.C. Bar Association make of this hero revisited.
In September, we posted a brief survey online that yielded scores of thoughtful responses, some from members who shared their names, some from anonymous contributors. Perhaps the starkest reply came from a nameless respondent, No. 54, who simply asked: “Why do lawyers need a fictional icon?”
Respondent No. 54 must be made of sterner stuff than most, to eschew not just a single character but the entire notion of a fictional patron saint altogether. Of the 62 people who filled out the survey, just two skipped the question that asked if lawyers of the future need a new fictional icon for inspiration, suggesting that make-believe heroes remain useful for plenty of folks.
Of those respondents willing to entertain the idea of a fictional icon, 67 percent view Atticus as still worthy of veneration.
He far outstripped the other characters suggested by the survey: Matlock, who garnered 8 percent of respondents’ votes; Elle Woods, 7 percent; Perry Mason, 5 percent; and Judge Harry T. Stone, 3 percent.
The Atticus of “Mockingbird,” like the other characters in the survey, hues to a moral code that seems as black-and-white as the 1962 film inspired by the book, as simple as Scout, its beloved elementary school-age narrator. But in “Watchman” both Jean Louise, who has outgrown her childhood nickname, and Atticus have aged.
“Mockingbird” is set in the midst of the Great Depression, while “Watchman” plays out in the volatile early days of the civil rights movement. These shifts contribute to make “Watchman’s” Atticus a much thornier character. The crucial divide for Jean Louise and most of “Watchman’s” readers centers on Atticus’ support of the Jim Crow status quo of late 1950s Alabama and that he supports this stance with his interpretation of the Constitution. While his dedication to the rule of law remains steadfast, his daughter can now see the gaps between her heroic, childhood vision of her father and the man in full.
Questions persist about whether “Watchman” should have been published 55 years after “Mockingbird.” According to publisher Harper Collins, Lee wrote it before she wrote “Mockingbird,” and the manuscript was thought to be lost before its discovery last year. For many Atticus fans, one book was enough.
Attorney Leah Hermiller, a Young Lawyers Division member who practices at Burns Day-Presnell, P.A., has “Watchman” on her reading list, but hasn’t cracked it yet. She said she doesn’t think the new version will upend the “Mockingbird” Atticus she has loved since fifth grade.
In her response to the NCBA survey, she wrote: “As a society, we often display an inability to look beyond the surface. However, as lawyers, we have a duty to look beyond the qualities that divide us and to value people Atticus Finch valued people. Regardless of economic status, color, age or gender, Atticus Finch valued people.”
“Watchman” has no trial at its narrative heart while “Mockingbird” featured Atticus’ defense of the falsely accused Tom Robinson. And for some readers, this second portrayal fleshes out the first. One respondent to our survey, who chose to remain anonymous, offered praise for the new book, writing: “Our failing is that we have come to regard Atticus Finch as perfect. … Hooray for ‘Go Set a Watchman’: it adds more complexity and nuance to Atticus’ character. If anything, it elevates Atticus’ level of professionalism. The sad reality is that most Southerners in Atticus’ time were racists. Atticus put his racism aside to zealously defend Tom. … Isn’t it more noble for a racist like Atticus to set aside his personal biases, heed his better angels, and do the right thing? I believe this Atticus Finch is a better, more realistic role model for most of us.”
Another survey respondent, Victoria Bender, who focuses on family law in her Raleigh-based practice Bender Law Offices, wrote that a real hero can admit when he or she was wrong.
“I have not read ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ but I do think that if Harper Lee had wanted to publish that book instead of the one she did, she would have,” Bender wrote. “That said, history is replete with people who have changed their views on important issues. And most humans are flawed. To base your opinion of a person on one aspect of them is rather like the blind men and the elephant, never getting the full picture. I love good, well-written literature, but even nuanced characters cannot match up to real people.”
The question of how history will ultimately judge Atticus remains, but if the conversation that arose in the wake of the publication of “Watchman” is any indication, lawyers—at least some lawyers—can still find a use for fictional icons—and particularly Atticus Finch—as avenues for examining complex, painful situations that remain very real.
More online survey questions and answers
Did you read “To Kill A Mockingbird” before you graduated from high school?
- 61 percent = yes
- 37 percent = no
- 2 percent = Too many times to count.
Have you watched the 1962 film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch?
- 2 percent = never
- 5 percent = I’ve caught snippets of it.
- 63 percent = At least once.
- 30 percent = Too many times to count.
The character of Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird” had some bearing on your decision to pursue law as a profession.
- 35 percent = agree
- 65 percent = disagree
The portrayal of Atticus Finch in “Go Set A Watchman” changed your relationship with the fictional character …
- 14 percent = Somewhat
- 9 percent = Profoundly
- 46 = Not much
- 31 = Other
- 10 percent = Under 30
- 26 percent = 30-45
- 31 percent = 46-60
- 33 percent = Over 60
- 60 percent = Male
- 40 percent = Female
“To Kill A Mockingbird”
“… when summer comes you’ll have to keep your head about far worse things … its not fair for you and Jem, I know that, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down—well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.” – Atticus to Scout
“Go Set A Watchman”
“I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point. You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief —nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief. His cause interfered with your orderly mind, and you had to work out of disorder.
It’s a compulsion with you, and now it’s coming home to you.” – Jean Louise Finch to Atticus