“Today Atticus Finch would be a villain” read the headline on the New York Post on October 1. This scandalous headline was followed by: “It’s time for To Kill a Mockingbird to give up its treasured place in American culture.”
Now, this had me sitting up and taking notice. One of the books that stayed with me from my early teens is To Kill a Mockingbird, by the lately lamented Harper Lee. Recently I watched the movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch for the umpteenth time, wondering if, in this day and age, it would seem dated and even a little ridiculous.
Sadly, it is neither dated nor ridiculous! And yet here is a journalist I admire, Rich Lowry, intimating this book which has sold over 30 million copies should be removed from school curriculum and consigned to oblivion together with other much-maligned books such as Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Long admired as the champion of the underdog, Atticus Finch is the small town lawyer who agrees to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, against the charge of rape of a white woman. The story of the trial is told through the eyes of Finch’s daughter Jean Louise, aka Scout, and the father she adores is portrayed as a champion of civil rights.
In Go Set a Watchman, the book published just before Harper Lee’s death and written before it’s more famous sibling, it is revealed that Scout once saw her father at a KKK meeting, which had lovers of Mockingbird denying that their Atticus would ever have done such a thing – yet the clues are there to find in the earlier book. For example, Atticus tells his children that in the 1920s there was a branch of the Klan in Maycomb, but it was a political organisation – he fails to give any further details. I might add there are just as many quotes to support a contrary view.
In my eyes the To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are not contradictory; rather I see them as a coming of age for Jean Louise. Like many of us, she learns the person she most admired is human and loved and supported the law and the due process of law, more than he supported the anti-segregation movement.
Lowrey brings this proposition into the modern world when he says; “And this is where the story, in contemporary terms, goes off the rails. Atticus Finch didn’t #BelieveAllWomen. He didn’t take an accusation at face value.”
As Lowry so eloquently continues: “To Kill a Mockingbird stands firmly for the proposition that an accusation can be false, that unpopular defendants presumed guilty must and should be defended and that it is admirable and brave to withstand the crowd — at times in the story, literally the lynch mob — when it wants to cast aside the normal protections of justice.
“Exactly what has made Atticus Finch such an honoured figure in our culture would make him a very inconvenient man at many college campuses today, where charges of sexual misconduct are adjudicated without the accused being allowed to confront the accuser or make use of other key features of our system of justice.”
Reading this I find myself in a real dilemma. On one hand, I want to support women who have been abused, sexually harassed, overlooked for promotion, physically, verbally and or emotionally raped. Yet on the other hand, where is the due process of law? Should we be ruining a man’s reputation just because we can?
In some ways I see a McCarthyism raising its head as we shout “Me Too”. My great fear is that those without the benefit an Atticus Finch to defend them, the Tom Robinson’s of the world will be found guilty not because of their crime, but because of their gender.
Then there are the powerless; the women who don’t have a voice, the child abused by a relative, the woman held in a cruel, loveless marriage, the child slave. Who will hear their cries over the din of the crowd? When we have burned our witches at the stake of public opinion, who will protect the innocent?
“Perhaps the Atticus Finches of the world don’t have a place in modern society, but let’s not banish them forever. As Lowry eventually concedes, we need Atticus’s “unshakable commitment to fairness,” and one day we just might need a man like him to defend our character.