An icon has religious significance. Once one moves from the divine to the human level, it refers to someone who is viewed as a symbol of all that is good in humanity.
Unfortunately, in a broken society an icon can be dashed and broken to pieces at the feet of those who discover that the revered symbol had flaws. For many an icon must be perfect—if he or she is not, then their glorious exploits and words are scattered like wheat chaff on the winds.
From literature there are many icons. One of the most enduring icons for the last half century has been Atticus Finch, the noble lawyer and loving father from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird.
In some ways, Harper Lee’s book was a biographical sketch of her home town of Monroeville, Alabama during the Great Depression. Like many children Harper Lee’s hero was her father Amasa who was the source material for Atticus Finch.
Any good writer writes about what they know. As a child growing up in the Great Depression in the South, she had many impressions of her hometown and its denizens both good and bad and, as always, in-between the poles of morality and decency.
The book set in Maycomb, Alabama is told from the viewpoint of Atticus Finch’s young daughter Jean Louise (Scout). As a child one does not always see the world as a real place—the town and woods are places to play and pretend; the people are giants and dwell in their own world up there.
The harsh realities of life belong to the world up there where voices raise and lower and words are uttered which filter down to the world of children with little meaning. Grown-up talk is just that—for grown-ups as are their strange behaviors.
The book in 1960 and the movie in 1962 with Gregory Peck have been standard reading and viewing materials for decades. Gregory Peck gave Atticus Finch flesh and blood in his Oscar-winning performance.
A widower raising his two young children in a Southern town gave Atticus that noble parental statute. Scout describes her middle-aged father this way:
“I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment.”
Atticus was well-respected by his town. This is why Judge Taylor asked him to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl.
Of course this set in motion a series of events leading to a tragic conclusion for the accused and perhaps in an ironical sense of final justice for Tom’s accuser by another outcast in Maycomb. Two outcasts (the accused and a recluse) of genteel society are depicted with a great deal of care and thought.
Atticus in his closing argument to the all-white jury of men states eloquently
“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
“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. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.”
Today Atticus Finch is under attack. With the publication of Go Set A Watchman in July 2015, Atticus Finch’s icon status as the defender of the weak and a paragon of justice has been challenged.
The simple truth is that the Go Set A Watchman was Harper Lee’s first attempt in writing a complex story set in the deep South. What evolved from her thoughts and conversations was the finished product—To Kill A Mocking Bird.
It is too easy in our broken society to attack symbols of courage and justice. From the White House to the isolated hollows of the mountains icons are daily berated and questioned.
People are human. They have good points and bad points; they make wise decisions and foolish decisions; they rise and fall in their walk on the road of life.
There is no one on this planet traversing the cosmos who could withstand the scrutiny with which the media and their followers put every iota and tittle of imperfection under a microscope. It is easy to be an iconoclast, but it takes real thought and courage to accept one’s icons for what they are—imperfect humans who make mistakes.
My best advice is to leave Atticus Finch where he belongs—in To Kill A Mocking Bird. The age of innocence will pass soon enough for all of us as we grapple with our hopes, dreams and fears and as we contemplate our final journey into the cosmic ocean where icons, heroes, heroines, the good, the bad and the ugly meet their final resolution.
The legacy of Harper Lee is not Go Set A Watchman. It is To Kill a Mocking Bird:
“Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might.
“Yes sir, I understand,” I reassured him. “Mr. Tate was right.”
Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’d be sort of like shootin‘ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” Atticus put his face in my hair and rubbed it.
When he got up and walked across the porch into the shadows, his youthful step had returned. Before he went inside the house, he stopped in front of Boo Radley. “Thank you for my children, Arthur,” he said.
G. D. Williams © 2015
TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD-the movie
Based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of 1961. Atticus Finch is a lawyer in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama a racially divided Alabama town, set in the early 1930s, and modeled after Monroeville where Harper Lee grew up. Finch agrees to defend a young black man who is accused of raping a white woman. Many of the townspeople try to get Atticus to pull out of the trial, but he decides to go ahead. How will the trial turn out – and will it effect any changes in racial attitudes in Maycomb?Written by Brian Daly <firstname.lastname@example.org>