It is impossible to overstate the impact that Atticus Finch has had on the American legal system and its members. Consider this opening from a case decided by the Florida Supreme Court in 2013:
In his final remarks to the jury, Atticus Finch, the heroic protagonist of Harper Lee’s iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, proclaims
I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system — that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 205 (Warner Books, Inc., 1960). The case before us today addresses the very heart in which Atticus’s faith roots — the integrity of our courts, the soundness of our juries, and the men and women who “make [them] up.” Id.
Matarranz v. State, 133 So. 3d 473 (Fl. 2013). Or consider this 1999 concurrence from a Justice of the Washington Supreme Court: “We would most likely agree with Atticus Finch’s advice to his precocious, six-year-old daughter, Scout: ‘[Y]ou just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let `em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.’” State v. Riley, 976 P. 2d 624 (Wa. 1999). Trial lawyer Jim Perdue wrote a book titled, I Remember Atticus: Inspiring Stories Every Trial Lawyer Should Know. In 2010, the Texas Bar Journal had an article about the origins of the character, and how he exemplified the best aspirations of lawyers. Atticus is to lawyers as Galileo is to scientists.
Tuesday is the release date of Go Set A Watchman, in which Atticus Finch is, twenty years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird, a closed-minded bigot who believes “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people” and that the civil rights movement is moving too quickly.
As one quipster remarked on Twitter, “It’s like finding out Santa Claus beats his reindeer.”
So what are we, as lawyers, to do with this information? In my humble opinion: nothing.
Though set later in time, Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel, but rather was the original draft of the book that eventually became To Kill A Mockingbird after two years of difficult work by Harper Lee and her editors. It is thus a curious relic perhaps worthy of study by scholars, but not an appropriate basis for reinterpreting the classic. Indeed, the books don’t even exist in the same universe: in Go Set A Watchman, Tom Robinson was acquitted.
There’s nothing strange or unusual about that: many classic novels started out with truly bizarre first drafts. In the earliest drafts of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, several children were sucked into the factory and incorporated into the chocolate bars. The same is true of classic movies: Rocky originally ended with him deliberately throwing the fight. As novelists often say, “the essence of writing is rewriting.”
In short, the Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is not the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird. The Atticus of the former who says pro-segregation councils are “a sort of warning to the Negroes for them not to be in such a hurry” is not the same man who told his children, after Tom Robinson’s conviction:
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. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it. … Whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash. There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who will take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves — it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in you children’s time.
That Atticus is our hero, and will remain as much. This new imposter Atticus is “trash.”