After her father died, Lee gave his pocket watch to Gregory Peck, who by then was starring in an adaptation of her novel. She cried when she first saw Peck in costume as Atticus, noting how much he looked like her father; a year later, he brought the watch with him onstage to accept an Oscar for his performance. For Lee, that version was definitive. “I’ve refused scores of requests from some mightily talented people to turn M’bird into everything from a Broadway play to an opera,” Lee wrote in a letter to Peck in the nineteen-eighties. “I have always said no for one reason: I cannot run the risk of having your Atticus diminished in public memory by so much as a scintilla.” She made one exception to this rule: always softhearted about children—she answered nearly all the many letters they sent to her—she eventually authorized a play for community-theatre groups, and there are, by now, scores of former Scouts and Jems and Dills across America. (In her home town, Monroeville, where the play is still performed every spring, some actors who started out playing kids have aged into the adult roles.)
Yet, the most enduring influence of the movie version of “Mockingbird” has as much to do with the screenplay, by Horton Foote, as with Peck’s performance: Atticus forever displaced Scout at the center of the story. Fiction’s most delightful tomboy-nerd, who spits and fights and learns to read long before most people around her think she should, narrates the movie, and, aside from the legal case, gets most of her father’s attention—but Atticus is the hero. And, for decades, that is what he remained, to viewers, readers, and the culture at large. Although there were occasional calls to ban the novel from schools, for its discussion of rape or for its use of racial slurs, it was only in 1992, when a law professor, Monroe Freedman, published an article declaring Atticus “a gentleman but no model for lawyers,” that the marble man of Lee’s novel started to crack.
In “Atticus Finch, Esq., R.I.P.,” which appeared in the professional journal Legal Times, Freedman notes that Atticus only defends Tom Robinson because he is forced to do so by the court, that he willingly participates in the segregation of his society, and that he insists on the human decency of even overt bigots. The case against Finch was taken up by another legal scholar, Steven Lubet, in the Michigan Law Review, seven years later, and began to spread to wider audiences. Then, in 2015, “Watchman” offered a flatly racist Atticus, who, rather than defend the courts as a place in which all citizens are equal, asks Scout, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?” Atticus now seemed less a role model than a case study for college seminars on the history of Jim Crow.
Educators and parents began to challenge the enshrinement of “Mockingbird” on school syllabi, not because its material was too sensitive for students, as conservatives had once argued, but because it was too insensitive. The novelist Alice Randall recently asked whether a text “written by a privileged daughter of the Old South should still take up space in curriculum that could be well used to expose students to literary voices on race and injustice that have emerged in the past 50 years.” Randall pointed out that the story could be equally disturbing for a black boy in Mississippi who experiences the ongoing reality of racism and worries that he might one day be on trial like Tom Robinson and for a white girl in New York City who has been raped and worries about being treated like Mayella Ewell if she comes forward.
After all, although Mayella falsely accuses Tom, she has, in fact, been assaulted—by her father, whose full name, we learn in passing, is Robert E. Lee Ewell. But even Atticus is silent about Mayella’s abuse by her father, except for a brief moment in the courtroom, when it serves his cause. To Scout, he explains the Ewells by claiming that certain crimes, from hunting violations to domestic violence, just run in poor families. In “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” (Viking), the historian Nancy Isenberg accurately summarizes Atticus’s reaction to the most impoverished members of his community: “The Ewells were members of the terminally poor, those whose status could not be lifted or debased by an economic fluctuation—not even the Depression. They were human waste.” Into the late nineties, Lee herself would complain, in letters, about how Snopeses—the name Faulkner gave to his equivalent of the Ewells, in Yoknapatawpha County—had taken over her home town.
In other ways, too, “Mockingbird” has always been more complicated than our cultural memory of it allows—not just on class, but also on race. In her recent book “Reading Harper Lee” (Greenwood), the critic Claudia Durst Johnson considers the killing of Tom Robinson in the context of police shootings and misconduct, and analyzes the often forgotten character Dolphus Raymond, the wealthy white man who becomes a pariah in Maycomb after falling in love with a black woman and having children with her. These and so many of the novel’s other intricacies are overlooked in favor of increasingly well-worn arguments about the standing of Atticus. And yet, even there, we would do well to read the novel more closely. Although it features children, it is not childish; its charm, and its internal logic, is that Atticus is a hero in the eyes of his young daughter, not that he is objectively heroic.
Perhaps his perfection was only ever as a father, and not as a civil-rights crusader. He teaches Scout and Jem a kind of radical empathy that he himself cannot sustain but that they might grow up to embody. That is the version of Atticus still beloved by many of the book’s readers: not a noble lawyer on a par with actual civil-rights heroes such as Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, or Morris Dees (a founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and one of the many lawyers who say they owe their choice of profession to Atticus) but a compassionate, courageous single dad raising his children as best he can.
That Atticus is almost nowhere to be found in “Watchman,” which was published shortly after the death of Lee’s older sister Alice, her longtime lawyer, and amid claims that Lee herself was too compromised by age and a severe stroke to make her own decisions. The surprise release of the book occasioned all kinds of speculation. Some people worried that it was the result of coercion, and amounted to elder abuse of a national treasure. But a few people who knew Lee wondered if perhaps she was trying, if not to sabotage her literary legacy, at least to alter it, so that by the time she died, the white-savior version of Atticus Finch would die with her.