Go Set A Wathman, book cover ()
A week after Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” was released, lawyers are still coming to terms with the fall of their beloved idol, Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer of the book’s predecessor, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Spouting racist comments and fighting for segregation in “Watchman,” Finch is nearly unrecognizable as his “Mockingbird” character, whose commitment to equality under the law inspired many lawyers’ career choice.
In Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama—on which the books’ setting of Maycomb is based—one attorney is hopeful that the pre-”Watchman” Atticus still lives.
“I don’t think anybody can rob us of the image [of Atticus Finch] we had before,” said David Steele Jr. of Steele Law.
Noting that the town holds annual theater productions of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the courthouse lawn, Steele wondered if Monroeville will ever put on a production of “Watchman.”
Ranse Partin, a partner with Atlanta’s Conley Griggs Partin and a self-proclaimed Atticus Finch fan, agreed that he preferred Mockingbird’s version of the character.
“I think I’ll stick with the Atticus Finch that I grew up with and admired,” he said.
Others, however, were less optimistic.
One was U.S. District Judge Richard Story, who told the Daily Report in 2007 that Finch is a “superhero in the world of law” after the judge portrayed Finch in a theater production of “Mockingbird.” Story declined to be interviewed about the Finch revelations, saying through his secretary that he was “in mourning.”
Georgetown University Law Center professor Abbe Smith, a criminal defense attorney and a self-identified “Atticus apologist,” was prompted by the Atticus in “Watchman” to revisit harsh criticism of Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” that she had once argued against.
One such critique was penned by the late Hofstra University law professor Monroe Freedman in 1992 for Legal Times, an affiliate of the Daily Report. Freedman called Finch out for tolerating the injustice of 1930s Maycomb, despite his zealous representation of a black man, including facing down a lynch mob in “Mockingbird.”
“Finch never attempts to change the racism and sexism that permeate the life” there, wrote Freedman. “On the contrary, he lives his own life as the passive participant in that pervasive injustice. And that is not my idea of a role model for young lawyers.”
Smith had railed against this argument in her essay, “Defending Atticus Finch,” for Legal Ethics in 2011, asserting rather that Finch was a man of his time period and thus a “more authentic and accessible hero.”
But now, Smith, who co-authored multiple publications with Freedman, concedes that her friend may have been onto something.
“I want to give all credit to Monroe Freedman … turns out he’s kind of a genius,” she said. “He saw something I didn’t see.”
Freedman was not alone in his critiques.
[Spoiler alert] While reading “Go Set a Watchman,” Smith said she was most disturbed by Finch’s decision to ineffectively represent the grandson of Calpurnia, the Finch family’s longtime maid and nanny, against manslaughter charges.
While the Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” took Robinson’s case out of a sense of moral obligation, the Atticus Finch of “Watchman” takes this case out of a sense of racism. He wants to prevent a lawyer from the NAACP from taking the case because that lawyer would insist on a racially diverse jury. Rather than fight for his client’s innocence, as he did 20 years ago, Finch now chooses to plead guilty and call it a day.
In doing this, Finch violates the principles of due process and equal protection under the law that he held so dear in “Mockingbird,” Smith says, and personally betrays the woman who helped raise his children.
Finch’s misdeeds in “Watchman” still don’t detract from his courage and skill in “Mockingbird,” Smith said.
“Atticus Finch is now a much more complicated literary hero. It doesn’t render his lawyering of Tom Robinson any less heroic,” Smith said.
Citing recent instances of police brutality against the black community, Smith added that it might be time for the white hero to take a step down.
“Maybe it’s a good thing that the white male Atticus Finch bites the dust—maybe he’s not the right hero for this period in time,” she said.
This shift for lawyers who idolize Atticus Finch reflects a change going on with Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, Atticus’ daughter, who narrates “Mockingbird” and from whose viewpoint “Watchman” is told. In the recent book, she is forced to question her childhood memories of her father as a god, as she attempts to reconcile her love for her him with his hateful ideology.