Fictional characters walk off the page all the time, generally as cautionary tales, like Pollyanna or Walter Mitty, but Atticus has inspired legions of lawyers, been memorialized with a public sculpture, had professional-achievement awards and a nonprofit organization named after him, and been invoked admiringly by Barack Obama, who quoted one of the character’s folksy fatherisms in his farewell address as President: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Like any legal precedent, though, Atticus has faced challenges and dissents, and lately his status as a hero has seemed perilously close to being overturned. Criticisms of his accommodationist racial politics, his classism, and his sexism went mainstream a few years ago, after the publication of an earlier novel by Lee, “Go Set a Watchman,” which gave us an older Atticus, and a less admirable one: a grownup Scout came home to Alabama from New York City to find that, in his dotage, her beloved father was opposing the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and attending meetings of a white-supremacist group.
With plenty of actual white men falling from their pedestals, it has seemed, ever since, that Atticus might do so, too. No longer a model of courage and decency even in his fictional daughter’s eyes, he turned out to be a man very much of his time—and, perhaps even worse, of ours, as old prejudices resurge, hate crimes proliferate, and arguments rage about the merits of maintaining civility in the face of bigotry. In October, the Republican senator John Cornyn invoked a talking point that had emerged among conservative commentators, calling the fight to appoint Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court “our Atticus Finch moment.” In doing so, Cornyn ignored the racist post-Reconstruction context of the allegation against Tom Robinson, the persuasiveness of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Kavanaugh, and the fact that all the nominee stood to lose was a job promotion, not his life.
Atticus was suddenly on all the wrong sides, fighting for all the wrong causes. It’s hard to imagine a less auspicious moment to try to bring the character back to life—and yet, for the first time ever, Lee’s beloved father figure is on Broadway, in a new theatrical adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s not clear, though, whether Atticus is enjoying a revival or taking his final bow.