ATTICUS FINCH FIFTY YEARS LATER

July 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

He had an unremarkable law practice in the backwater town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930’s.  He was a widower with two small children to raise, an earnest son named Jem and a tomboyish daughter named Scout.  In one steaming southern summer his bravery and devotion to the rule of law elevated him into one of the most towering exemplars of integrity and the best of the legal profession.  And yet, he never existed in real life.  His name is Atticus Finch, hero of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which observes the 50th anniversary of its publication this week.

The book is a powerful evocation of small-town life in the south in the sleepy, destitute era long before the civil rights awakening of the 1960’s.  Rosa Parks had not yet sat in the front of a bus in Montgomery.  There were no freedom riders then.  No protest marches with German Shepherds and fire hoses.  In the time of the story there is no political movement bearing the characters forward; there is only a black man wrongly accused and this small-time lawyer in a “tired, old” Alabama town doing what his profession and his own personal convictions demanded of him, and doing it with honor, courage and single-minded devotion to the interest of his client, heedless of the personal danger that his unpopular actions brought him.  And through it all Atticus Finch the lawyer was a wise, attentive and devoted father and rock for his children. 

To many of us, Atticus Finch is inescapably Gregory Peck, who played the role in the 1962 film and won an Oscar as best actor.  The movie won three Academy Awards out of eight nominations, and today is considered one of the great American classics.  Its black-and-white images remain etched in our minds.  I am sure that I am not the only southern teenager who saw the movie in those days and was inspired to be a lawyer just like Atticus some day.

Half a century after he appeared, Atticus Finch remains a model and a contemporary inspiration.  In a recent poll practicing lawyers voted him an influence on their careers; strong stuff for a fictional character.    

Here is Atticus Finch in his own words:

  • “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy… but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
  • “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.”
  • “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
  • “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
  • “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.”
  • “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
  • “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.”
  • “Bad language is a stage all children go through, and it dies with time when they learn they’re not attracting attention with it.”
  • “Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.”

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