Atticus Finch was on the wrong side
It’s time for “To Kill a Mockingbird” to give up its treasured place in American culture.
The 1960 novel by Harper Lee was published to instant acclaim, has sold more than 30 million copies and is ubiquitous in high-school curricula. The 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck, is a classic in itself and won three Academy Awards. A play based on the novel is about to open on Broadway.
This is quite the résumé for a book that, prior to the publication of a sequel in 2015 that was really the first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was Harper Lee’s only work. But nothing is forever, even for a book commonly called “timeless.” Lee’s novel is deeply out of sympathy with a moment when on college campuses, and in the culture more broadly, due process isn’t what it used to be, when it is often thought to be a hateful act to insist that allegations of sexual misconduct be proven.
A refresher on the story: It is told from the perspective of a young girl, Scout, who is the daughter of a small-town lawyer named Atticus Finch (played by Peck in the movie). The setting is Depression-era Alabama. Finch is unpopular in town because he has decided to take on the defense of a black man named Tom Robinson who is accused of rape by a young white woman.
And this is where the story, in contemporary terms, goes off the rails. Atticus Finch didn’t #BelieveAllWomen. He didn’t take an accusation at face value. He defended an alleged rapist, vigorously and unremittingly, making use of every opportunity provided to him by the norms of the Anglo-American system of justice. He did it despite considerable social pressure to simply believe the accuser.
In a gripping courtroom scene, Finch cross-examines Mayella Ewell, the 19-year-old daughter of an abusive drunk from a dirt-poor family who is Robinson’s accuser. With all the vehemence and emotion she can muster, Ewell insists that Robinson attacked her after she got him to break up a piece of old furniture at her house.
Without mercy, Finch takes apart her account. In contemporary internet argot, he “destroys” her. He brushes right by her tears. He doesn’t care about her feelings, only the facts. He exposes contradictions in her story and shreds her credibility, especially with the dramatic revelation that Robinson doesn’t have use of his left arm when he stands up at the defense table (he is alleged to have hit her with his left hand).
It is revealed that Ewell is lying. She had made an advance on Robinson and gotten caught by her vicious, racist father. The charge of rape against Robinson was a cover story, although the bigoted jury convicts him anyway.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” stands firmly for the proposition that an accusation can be false, that unpopular defendants presumed guilty must and should be defended, and that it is admirable and brave to withstand the crowd — at times in the story, literally the lynch mob — when it wants to cast aside the normal protections of justice.
Exactly what has made Atticus Finch such an honored figure in our culture would make him a very inconvenient man at many college campuses today, where charges of sexual misconduct are adjudicated without the accused being allowed to confront the accuser or make use of other key features of our system of justice.
Finch is a rebuke to the shift from a presumption of innocence toward a presumption of guilt that now attends accusations of sexual harassment and assault. He didn’t believe that someone being accused of something is enough to establish his wrongdoing, or accept that a category of people were, by definition, to be under a pall of suspicion.
Atticus Finch is not the man for this moment, but we need him, and his reasoned yet unshakable commitment to fairness and justice, more than ever.