WHY ATTICUS IS STILL MY HERO
On Tuesday during my lunch hour, I made a beeline to Burke’s Book Store in midtown Memphis.
Burke’s is one of my favorite places in Memphis.
It is literally a literary landmark.
It has been in continuance operation in Memphis since 1875, and is one of the oldest independent bookstores in America. Over the years Burke’s has been the site of book signings by a wide range of writers including John Grisham, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie and Anne Rice.
I traveled to Burke’s to get my pre-ordered copy of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, the long-awaited sequel (or perhaps prequel) to Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill A Mockingbird.
As virtually everyone knows, To Kill A Mockingbird is the story of a courageous southern lawyer, Atticus Finch and his defense of an innocent man, Tom Robinson.
The story was told by a child, Atticus’ daughter, Scout.
Next to the Bible, it is the most widely-beloved book in America, and over a half century after its publication, its story of class, courage, passion and race inspires millions.
It has been a particular inspiration to lawyers, as so many members of the legal profession will tell you that they first dreamed of becoming a lawyer after reading the story of Atticus Finch or seeing Gregory Peck portray Atticus in the Oscar-winning film in 1962.
I am one of those lawyers who decided to go to law school after seeing Gregory Peck’s performance and later reading the book, not once, but several times.
Atticus Finch has been my hero now for over 50 years. To give you some idea how much I admire Atticus, I have a beagle. His name is Atticus.
In fact, I have two beagles. The other beagle is named Scout.
I also have a cat whom I wanted to name “Boo”, but for some reason, my wife and kids vetoed that idea.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird or watched the movie. I’ve read the book and seen Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus so many times that I’ve memorized many lines from the book. Some of them are insightful, such as Atticus’ statement to the jury in his closing argument in defense of Tom Robinson: “I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our Courts and the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality.”
Other lines are funny. Since I am 63 years old and only 5’ 6”, I often quote the character Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird: “I’m little, but I’m old.”
In my study in my home, I have a framed picture of Atticus in his three piece seersucker suit defending Tom Robinson in a hot Alabama courtroom.
As I say, Atticus has long been my hero, not just as a lawyer, but as a father as well.
And so, a few months ago, when I heard there had been a discovery of the manuscript of another Harper Lee novel about Atticus, I was thrilled. I immediately called Burke’s Book Store and ordered a copy.
And then a few days ago, I began to read some disconcerting news. Early reviews of the book indicated that in Go Set A Watchman, Atticus might not be the hero he was in To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set A Watchman is the story of Atticus in his 70s, being visited by a now-grown Scout. And according to reviews, the old Atticus, in contrast to the young Atticus, expressed pro-segregationist and arguably racist views.
Suddenly I was getting emails from lots of friends asking me whether I intended to read a book in which Atticus is portrayed as a bigot. I have to confess the news disturbed me. I did not want to lose my hero.
But I couldn’t resist spending more time with Atticus and Scout. And so on Tuesday, I got my copy of Go Set A Watchman.
I started reading it Tuesday night. I have not yet finished it, but I’ve read enough to know that the old Atticus in the 1950s was in agreement with a lot of the views of his fellow southerners during that time that segregation of the races should be maintained. I admit that it was not a pleasant experience to read some of the words attributed to my hero.
But while I’m not yet finished with my journey with aging Atticus and grown-up Scout, I still love Atticus. He remains and will always be my hero.
It appears that like so many of us, Atticus was a bundle of contradictions, and he was influenced by his culture and his times.
Even the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird was not a civil rights activist. He was a country lawyer who in the years leading up to the Depression served in the Alabama legislature. It would be a work of monumental fiction that Atticus was a liberal in the modern sense of the word.
No, Atticus was a country lawyer who courageously represented an innocent black man, Tom Robinson. He courageously stood up to a lynch mob and a racist jury.
He taught Scout and Jem that courage is “when you know you’ve been licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
Atticus also wisely taught his children, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another … There are just some kind of men who are so busy worrying about the next world, they never learn to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
And of course he told Scout and Jem, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Like a mockingbird, Atticus sang. He sang for his children, and sang for justice in the courtroom.
He may have hit some bad notes late in life as reflected in Go Set A Watchman. But it would be a sin to judge him for a few things he said in the sunset of his life.
I intend to judge Atticus the way I hope I will be judged when the roll is called up yonder and hopefully I’ll be there. I want to be remembered for my best days, not my bad ones. I want to be remembered for love and grace, not hate and judgment.
That’s the way I’m going to remember Atticus as I say goodbye to him over the next few nights as I read Go Set A Watchman.
Atticus is and will always be my hero.