Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Strange Career of Atticus Finch

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Strange Career of Atticus Finch

Article excerpt

Contemporary debates concerning race in America owe much to the 1960s when African Americans and other minority groups gained basic legal protections and rights of citizenship denied them in the century following Reconstruction. The current offspring of this movement is multiculturalism, a term that encompasses a range of progressive educational techniques, policy recommendations, and social movements that celebrate racial and ethnic differences and seek to empower people to pursue goals of personal and communal freedom. One of the basic questions raised in the 1960s that reverberates in multiculturalism today is who in our society is allowed to speak authoritatively on racial issues. Over the course of the twentieth century, but particularly with the flowering of African American studies, the era in which white intellectuals debated the "Negro problem" among themselves' has ended once and for all. In countless cultural productions and scholarly works from the civil rights era and more recent decades, African Americans are the subjects in the exploration of racial inequality in American history and life. And yet looming among the most popular and enduring works on racial matters since the 1960s is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the Depression-era account of Atticus Finch's legal defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, told through the eyes of Finch's nine-year-old daughter, Scout.

In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism. Published in the fall of 1960, the novel had already sold five hundred thousand copies and been translated into ten languages by the time it received the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The story was almost immediately snatched up by Hollywood, and the Alan Pakula-directed film had the double distinction of landing Gregory Peck an Oscar for his portrayal of Finch and giving Robert Duvall, with a brief role as the mysterious Boo Radley, the first of his seemingly countless screen appearances. It is estimated that by 1982 To Kill a Mockingbird had sold over fifteen million copies, and a 1991 American "Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits" by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress revealed that next to the Bible the book was "most often cited in making a difference" in people's lives.(1)

The novel influenced a generation of Americans raised during the turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s. Former Clinton adviser James Carville, who spent his formative years in the 1960s South, reflected on Harper Lee's achievement: "I just knew, the minute I read it, that she was right and I had been wrong. I don't want to make it noble, or anything. I was just bored with all the talk of race." Evidence of the novel's continuing influence on rising generations can be found on the internet, where dozens of high school and college chat groups discuss the adventures of the Finch children or debate the meaning of the Radley neighbors. Atticus Finch himself remains a touchstone figure of decency and respect. In the recent Democratic primary campaign in New Hampshire, Bill Bradley, in an effort to appear above ordinary political wrangling, posed in a rocking chair on the set of a theatrical production of To Kill a Mockingbird; one of his speech writers told reporters later that Bradley had been in his best "Atticus Finch" mode. Given this legacy, the dearth of critical commentary on the novel is surprising. Literary critic Eric Sundquist writes, "It is something of a mystery that the book has failed to arouse the antagonism now often prompted by another great novelistic depiction of the South ... Adventures of Huckkberry Finn, which arguably uses the word nigger with more conscious irony than does To Kill a Mockingbird and whose antebellum framework and moral complexity ought to be a far greater bulwark against revisionist denunciation. …

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