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Monday, January 25, 2010

Atticus Finch: Friend or Foe?

The year 2010 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Of course, this novel has been very influential both inside and outside the legal profession, and it was again the subject of headlines a few months back.  Many readers will recall that, last August, Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker critical of the central hero in the book -- lawyer Atticus Finch.  Given Finch's iconic status, several writers quickly rose to his defense (see here, for example).  Others suggested that Gladwell's criticism did not go far enough.

I am happy to report that my colleague at John Marshall, Lance McMillian, has entered the fray with his new article, Atticus Finch as Racial Accommodator:  Answering Malcolm Gladwell's Critique, which he recently posted on SSRN.  Here's the abstract:

Atticus Finch – the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s 'To Kill A Mockingbird' – is a legal icon. The legendary status of Finch is confirmed by his standing in the non-legal world of broader culture. In 2003, the renowned American Film Institute deemed Atticus the greatest movie hero of all-time. That a lawyer would be worthy of this honor is nothing short of remarkable and demonstrates that the stature of Atticus Finch has assumed mythic proportions in American culture. Atticus is not just a lawyer; he is justice in the flesh.

Enter best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. Last year, Gladwell made waves in The New Yorker by arguing that, far from being a bright spot of racial enlightenment in a time of darkness, Atticus Finch instead made an immoral peace with the world of Jim Crow Alabama. While Gladwell is not the first to criticize the Atticus myth, he is the most culturally influential person to do so, which is an important development. The Atticus-As-Racial-Accommodator charge essentially posits that Atticus was all-too-comfortable with the racism (and racists) that surrounded him every day. Gladwell wonders: Where is the moral outrage? In response, I argue that Gladwell misdiagnoses Atticus because he neglects the important role that Finch’s Christian faith plays in who he is as a person. To understand Atticus, one must first understand Jesus and his teaching. Finch is a New Testament-style prophet whose worldview propels him to this truth: Love and understanding open doors; judgment and condemnation close them. Consequently, his quiet and gentlemanly interactions with the racists in his midst suggest neither passivity nor appeasement, as Gladwell contends. Instead, they are a form of character and strength – derived from Finch’s faith in Jesus – that imbue Atticus with moral authority in the eyes of the community. Moreover, while Gladwell rightly stresses the need of legal change in bringing equality to the South, the kind of moral change led by Finch was likewise necessary. Law is only half of the equation.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird. Combined with the cultural significance of Gladwell’s recent revisionist foray, this milestone means that now is a particularly apt time to look at Atticus with fresh eyes and assess his character anew.

I think these discussions of Finch raise interesting and important questions about our role as lawyers, and the role models we choose.  And it's worth pointing out that there is a tenuous connection to property law here.  Finch's fictional law practice included property matters, and the most notable case in which he was engaged in the book (aside from the criminal trial of Tom Robinson) was helping Walter Cunningham overcome issues arising from an entailed estate.

Mike Kent

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