After Fifty Years, Atticus Finch Shows Some Wear

by Scott Herring (November 2011)


Would intellectuals ever be apt to think of themselves as bigots? Except for sociopaths, surely the answer is no. The desire to believe oneself virtuous is too strong. Yet we engage in bigotry all the time. I see it regularly, right out in the open, here on my California university campus. The bigotry, of course, is directed at groups that, by unspoken agreement, are fair game—white Southerners, for instance, who have been a source of both fun and fear since before the Civil War. Think of the terrifying dueling-banjo kid in the 1972 film Deliverance, or all the other inbred Georgians in the film. Remarkably, I meet people all the time who believe this famous depiction of rural Southerners as a genetic train-wreck to be accurate. Bigotry, no matter how socially permissible, leads us to make howling errors. The anniversary of another classic film shows how far such acceptable prejudice can lead us astray.

When the fiftieth anniversary of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird came around in 2010, it provoked a surprising amount of commentary in the media, surprising because the book is not usually taken too seriously, at least not by academics and English teachers, who class it as “young adult” fiction and assign it only in grammar and middle schools. My elder son, a ninth grader, is scheduled to be hauled through it soon.  While the novel retains its sentimental, tear-jerking charms, it has lost the status it once held as a bold indictment of racism, and today is more likely to be condemned for not indicting racism boldly enough.

Another anniversary is approaching, however, that of the 1962 film version in which Gregory Peck put his permanent stamp on the character of Atticus Finch, the fearless defender of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in small-town Great Depression Alabama. This one is the more important anniversary, because taking a hard look at Atticus helps us understand that we have been led astray by a film that by anyone’s standards is, unfortunately, excellent. The main point of the novel lies hidden behind its most imposing, and impossible, character. Worse still, our response to the film works together with that acceptable prejudice against white Southerners to help befog our entire understanding of how race relations in the South evolved.

When the novel had its anniversary, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an essay in The New Yorker attacking both it and the movie. As so often, Gladwell serves as a weathervane for the conventional wisdom, so his essay works nicely as a CliffsNotes guide to the thinking of people who don’t like To Kill a Mockingbird. When his client is found guilty, despite his obvious innocence, Atticus shows little emotion as he leaves the courthouse. “If Finch were a civil-rights hero,” Gladwell comments, “he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law.” Rather, Atticus is “looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.”

Willfully or not, Gladwell takes the courthouse scene out of context. Atticus never expected to win the first round; he is playing a long game, relying on an appellate court, removed from local passions, to see reason. What really bothers Gladwell is that Atticus is an accomodationist, aiming not at radical change enforced by the law and, ultimately, the barrel of a gun. Instead, he aims at changing “hearts and minds.” However, Gladwell objects, “in cases where the status quo involves systemic injustice this is no more than a temporary strategy. Eventually, such injustice requires more than a change of heart.” He subscribes to the standard, simplified view of the civil rights revolution. In this view, the federal government, through Supreme Court rulings and legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, teamed up with black activists to shove equality down the throats of the South. White Southerners were at best surly and obstructive, at worst murderous. Only the black activists and northern white liberals were on the side of the angels.

Despite what Gladwell believes, however, social reform by fiat, executed by a distant and alien command center, does not work well. Where civil rights in the South are concerned, the federal government had to try twice, and the first attempt is instructive.  During Reconstruction, the Union army occupied the apparently supine Confederacy and tried to force racial equality on the rebels.  The policy failed so spectacularly that it resulted in one of the most thoroughgoing systems of apartheid to ever exist.

The second time around, during that period in the 1950s and 1960s that we call the Civil Rights era, the effort worked. No one would argue that life is perfect for all the black people of the South, but Jim Crow is gone. The disfranchisement, the lynchings, the de jure segregation, all are gone, as are the more lunatic symptoms of discrimination, like segregated drinking fountains and graveyards. Why did it work the second time, and not the first?

That is where To Kill a Mockingbird—the book, not the film—helps us understand what happened. Unfortunately, the figure of Atticus Finch sucks up all the oxygen, especially as given to us by Gregory Peck, lumbering around like a statue come to life: Atticus the impossibly perfect, born too soon for what would have been his perfect career, as a professor of moral philosophy at the Vulcan Science Academy. Atticus, who does not take off his tie and vest and even his suit coat at home, and so makes Mister Rogers look like a slob (and may leave us wondering how the two children, Scout and Jem, could possibly have been conceived). Gregory Peck’s Atticus imprints himself in our mind when we read the character on paper as Harper Lee created him, and the film version distracts us from what To Kill a Mockingbird is really about.

Set in the 1930s, but published in 1960, the book shows us the roots of the Civil Rights movement from the viewpoint of an author who has already observed much of it. To see those roots, we need to move our focus away from Gregory Peck as the lone fighter for justice, and instead notice what no one ever does: how many allies and sympathizers he has. These include the three children at the heart of the story, of course, who furthermore belong to the generation that will experience the Civil Rights movement and maybe participate in it. The judge has appointed Atticus to the case because he knows a travesty of justice is about to occur, and Atticus may be talented enough to stop it. The newspaper editor, although a racist himself, defends Atticus from a lynch mob. Mr. Dolphus Raymond finds Jim Crow so intolerable that he retreats and lives in the black community, pretending to be an alcoholic to give people an easy explanation for his odd behavior. Miss Maudie across the street seems to have a thing for Atticus, and sees the world just as he does; so does his brother.

But most important are the hillbillies who appear throughout. Crucial is the backwoods Cunningham family, one member of which forms part of the lynch mob that tries to murder the accused. Later, a Cunningham, impressed by the courage and resolution of the Finch family, is so willing to be swayed by Atticus’ argument that he nearly hangs the jury. The novel is filled with symbolic naming, and Lee lets us know what she thinks about the Cunninghams from the family name: they are cunning enough to survive in an economic environment that is crushing small farmers like them everywhere, and they are smart enough to think unconventionally.  They are not stupid hicks. But most important, along these lines, is the sheriff, Heck Tate.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those surpassingly rare works that seduces us into committing the very sin it is protesting, making its moral point all the stronger because it has shown the reader, in the most forceful way, how tempting the sin is (another example is the classic mob film Goodfellas, in which, through the first half, we are lured into a fantasy about how nice it would be to be a gangster, a fantasy shattered later in the film when the rather old-fashioned moral is revealed: those who live by the sword die by it).  In To Kill a Mockingbird, the reader is invited to be a racist—something the normal reader would regard as impossible—and Heck Tate is the most effective lure. Lee dwells on his huge body, his huge boots, and his hayseed discomfort on the witness stand. His Alabama accent is thick. Again, the symbolic naming comes into play. Heck, we decide, is a hick, poor white trash not up to the demands of his job. Although technically white, he belongs in the lower echelons of the race.

In the end, however, Heck alone understands what has happened, and even has to go so far as to explain what happened to the befuddled Atticus. Our race-tinged judgment of this hick turns out to have been as wrong as any race-tinged judgment of the black characters would have been.

The novel, then, is not just the story of a lonely and losing battle by a single, exceptional man. It is the story of an entire society that has begun to pivot. That society does not know that it is doing so, because so little about race relations has changed so far, as reflected in To Kill a Mockingbird, which is filled with old-fashioned violent racists. They distract us, too. The South is beginning to open up to outside influences leading it away from its long-held obsessions, and to inside influences as well.

Being a civil rights activist in Alabama in the 1950s must have been as terrifying as living in a war zone. However, while it was as scary as a war-zone, it was not as lethal. The fatal violence against civil rights workers, and plenty of innocent bystanders, is a deep black mark and a horror for those involved. It was also sporadic, disorganized, and could have been much worse. I have friends and family scattered around the region, and have traveled throughout the South, both Border State and Deep. One cliché about Southerners is absolutely true: they do love their guns. Even Atticus Finch, we learn, is a crack shot. Plenty of Southerners own dozens of weapons, enough to kit out a Marine Corps platoon. For the most part, the guns stayed on their racks throughout the period of greatest stress, in the 1950s and 1960s. If they had wanted to, white Southerners could have reacted as their forebears had in 1861, and the death rate would have soared. They refrained. Bull Connor used fire hoses and dogs on the activists in Birmingham in 1963. He did not use machine guns.

What brought about this widespread, relative restraint? The reason is that another cliché about Southerners is also true: they read their Bibles. By the mid-20th century, a sufficient number of them had read those Bibles closely enough to understand that, in their relationship with their black neighbors, the one person in the Bible whites most resembled was Pharaoh, who would not let the slaves go. Not a happy role to fill.

To Kill a Mockingbird is, then, more sophisticated than we usually think, because it explains why the push for civil rights worked the second time around: when pressed, a silent majority of Southerners were willing to accept it. A louder minority of white Southerners even worked for civil rights actively. They are forgotten today, written out of the standard simplified narrative, but when one looks into the history of the Civil Rights movement, they start to pop up all over. A number were educators or journalists, public roles that increased their impact. Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution and Buddy Davis of the Gainesville Sun are a couple of better-known examples, since both won Pulitzer Prizes, but they were not alone in opening their “hearts and minds.”

Malcolm Gladwell also has problems with the conclusion of the novel and film. Bob Ewell, who set events in motion by making the false rape accusation, has been humiliated in court by Atticus, and seeks his revenge by trying to kill his children. Ewell is himself killed by the reclusive Boo Radley, neighbor to the Finch family, who, although he has not appeared in public in years, has been protectively shadowing the children. Heck Tate, again, understands precisely what has happened, and convinces Atticus to go public with a white lie: that Ewell fell on his knife. Otherwise, Boo Radley will become a hero. Heck understands both what has happened and what will happen: “All the ladies in Maycomb includin’ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.”

At this point, Gladwell loses his patience: Atticus and the sheriff “have decided to obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbor the burden of angel-food cake.” But Lee has been perfectly clear about Boo Radley’s mental health, and it is not a trivial matter. He is so afraid of the public eye that the attention the sheriff foresees will drive him insane, or suicidal. Gladwell also seems to have missed freshman English. The scene is heavy with meaningful irony. The town’s most prominent attorney and chief law enforcement officer are forced to break the law in order that justice may be served.

Such a society needs to have its laws changed—but laws are useless when hearts and minds are dead-set against them.


Scott Herring teaches literature and writing at the University of California, Davis. He writes regularly about the outdoors, and about some of the weirder aspects of life in college humanities departments. He is a staff member at Yellowstone Reports.


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