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What would Atticus do?

| Charles Hanson

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Dr. Charles Hanson, professor emeritus of English and long-time University Honors Program faculty member, asked one such question in the following essay titled "What would Atticus do?" The subject of Hanson's most recent Honors course is literature of the American South, and it is from this perspective that he examines a heated controversy. Hanson looks at the legal, ethical and legislative debate currently surrounding the Confederate flag in the southern U.S. Atticus Finch, one of the most notable and enduring characters in American literature, provides a moral compass for many readers and film fans, and Hanson invokes this fictional spirit to think critically about recent events in South Carolina.

Editor's note: This essay was written prior to the recent release of a "new" novel by Harper Lee, "To Set a Watchman," in which her character of Atticus is portrayed in a very different light. Hanson's piece reflects a view of Atticus Finch that has prevailed for more than 50 years. 

What would Atticus do?

AtticusWhen "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published in 1960, no one could have predicted the remarkable success and lasting popularity of this first novel by a slender young woman from Alabama named Harper Lee. The first reviews were generally positive but seldom enthusiastic. "I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird," Harper Lee confessed to one reviewer. "I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it well enough to give me encouragement." The encouragement Lee desired came from the multitude of ordinary readers, who loved the book. "To Kill a Mockingbird" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961 and it remained on best-seller lists for 80 weeks. Translated into more than 40 languages and selling over 40 million copies, it became one of the best-selling novels of the 20th century. Even now in the 21st century its popularity shows no signs of waning, as it continues to sell a million copies a year.    

What is the secret of the novel's remarkable success? Perhaps the most important reason for the novel's enduring appeal is the character of Atticus Finch, the widowed father of Scout and Jem. A respected lawyer in the community, Atticus is assigned by a local judge to defend a black man accused of raping a young white woman. The scenes in the courtroom when Atticus proves beyond any doubt that the young black man, Tom Robinson, could not have been guilty of rape are among the most memorable scenes in the novel. What makes Atticus a hero, however, is not his achievement in the courtroom. Tom, despite the overwhelming evidence in his favor, is found guilty and convicted by the white jury. It is Atticus's courage in challenging the customs, beliefs, traditions and entrenched racism of his Southern community that makes him a hero. Defending a black man in court against the accusations of a white woman meant defying the fundamental beliefs and habits of mind of an entire white community, longtime neighbors and friends included. And in 1930s Alabama, a white man — even a respected lawyer like Atticus — could not take such a stand without paying a price. Nevertheless, Atticus is willing to pay the cost resulting from his conviction that every man, regardless of color, is entitled to a fair and impartial trial in an American court of law. It is his courageous defiance of his community's deeply held beliefs and traditions that makes Atticus a hero.   

In the five decades since the novel was published, Atticus Finch has continued to be regarded as a model of courage and moral heroism. According to scholar Alice Petry, "Atticus has become something of a folk hero in legal circles and is treated almost as if he were an actual person." A number of practicing lawyers today cite Atticus Finch as the fictional model who inspired them to pursue a career in law. Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center claims that Atticus was the reason he became a lawyer; federal judge Richard Matsch points to Atticus as a major judicial influence; and Sandra Day O'Connor, now retired from the Supreme Court, describes Atticus as "a symbol for what we lawyers like to think we are."   

This view of Atticus Finch as moral hero illustrates the power of literature to illuminate problematic issues and speak truth into our lives. That is the cultural function of great literature. Although Atticus is a fictional character, he has become a living presence in our collective imagination. Because the attitudes and issues he faced were powerfully present in American life — as indeed they still are — he serves as a moral exemplar when we are faced with similar issues today. Among the most important and divisive issues in 20th-century American life have been the issues of race. And even now, in the first decades of the 21st century, those issues are still with us — in different form, perhaps, but issues of race nonetheless.  

What would Atticus do? The question is worth asking, because Atticus Finch has become in our cultural imagination a model of integrity and courage, a moral compass who can help us find our way through difficult terrain. On which side of current debates would Atticus take a stand? At this moment in American history the place and standing of the Confederate battle flag is being debated. There are those who regard this flag as a symbol of heroic courage and sacrifice; and there are others who view the flag as a symbol of racial oppression and arrogant white supremacy. On which side would Atticus stand? Would he defend the view that the flag of the Confederacy should continue to fly over state capitols in the Deep South? Or would he support the decision to remove the Confederate flag from its place of honor and store it instead in museums devoted to helping us learn the lessons of history as we remember a past we cannot repeal and do not wish to repeat?   

What would Atticus do? Harper Lee's famous novel does not give a direct answer to this question. Indeed it cannot, for the novel is set in an earlier time when the cultural standing of the Confederate flag was not an issue. But it is not the function of literature to give direct answers. Rather, it is the nature of literature to dramatize moral issues in such a way that we can feel, visualize and imagine the consequences of human actions and decisions. Great literature asks compelling questions — and thus it empowers us to search for satisfying answers.      

What would Atticus do? Would he take a stand in defense of Southern tradition and heritage? Or would he support the recent decision of the South Carolina legislature to remove this symbol from its place of honor on the grounds of the state capitol? While we cannot know for certain what Atticus would do, we know from his portrayal in "To Kill a Mockingbird" that he is a man of integrity and moral courage — a man who will not vilify those who oppose him but who will not bend under the weight of public opinion even when it presses forcefully against his sense of decency, justice and the need to defend the rights of those unable to defend themselves. Although we do not know precisely what Atticus would do, we are confident that he would do the right thing — he would do what his conscience told him he should do. It is this quality in Atticus that makes him a hero — and it is thus that Atticus inspires us and empowers us to follow his example.