As soon as my ninth- and tenth-grade writing students learned the results of my ultrasound, the name suggestions went flying.
“We talked about it over group text,” one sophomore explained to me a couple of weeks ago, “And we came up with some really good options for names we’d like to give him.”
I laughed, curious, of course, about what they had come up with. Unsurprisingly, their first choice was a long-time favorite of mine, and the centerpiece of our reading and writing studies the entire first semester: “Obviously, it’s Atticus.”
The Fictional Legacy
When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was completely enthralled, not only by the story itself, but by the rhythm with which Harper Lee spun her tale. I was transported to Maycomb County, a struggling Depression-era town that was about to come face to face with problems of race, class, and justice. Scout Finch’s coming-of-age tale drew me in, as it had done thousands of aspiring writers before me. And I loved Atticus Finch.
My dreams of owning a dog named Atticus were thwarted, but it didn’t stop me from naming my first car after him, or purchasing ironic tee shirts that declared my devotion to the fictional lawyer (“Atticus Finch Runs Maycomb County”). There was no way my husband would actually let me attach the title to my child, but I hinted at it anyway.
To me, and to so many others, Atticus was the prime example of conscientious manhood. He defended a black man from a crime he did not commit, stood down racial slurs and threats of physical violence, carried himself with dignity in a town full of “hicks,” and did all of it in the name of being a wonderful father to his children. When Scout asks Atticus why he’s defending a black man, his response is telling:
If I didn't, I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again. . . . Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess.
Atticus wasn’t the only one affected personally by this case, or a case like it — we all were. We all are.
Atticus Finch would not exist apart from the mind of Harper Lee, the brilliant novelist whose avoidance of the press has always been enigmatic, and strikes us especially so in a world where people are famous simply for being famous. The mastermind behind the story captured the heart and attention of a nation soon to be locked in a Civil Rights battle that most would argue still rages on today.
First published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird joined the clarion call of the activists who marched and bled for equality. The legacy of her novel breathed life into countless discussions in Mrs. Holmes’s classroom about what it meant to be black in America then, what it means to be black in America now, and what it means to move beyond being personally affected by someone’s plight to taking bold and unapologetic action on their behalf.
In a way, Lee’s extremely private life allowed for her characters to loom even more gigantic in our hearts. They couldn’t be colored by the latest Lee news headline; they were captured in the words that Lee herself had penned for them, and not the distraction of her own life.
Once the book was done, the final had been taken, and the movie had been viewed, several of my students asked me if we would be reading Harper Lee’s latest release, Go Set a Watchman. I had such mixed feelings. I realize that characters can be as complicated as the lives of those who write them, but I wasn’t ready to see Atticus Finch as a carping racist. I wanted us to capture the screenshot of his heroics, especially in the landscape of today’s racial conflict.
He was my hero! But even beyond the controversy of the publication of her second novel, Lee reminded us that even heroes can fall.
Harper Lee died today.
The 89-year-old woman published two books, won a Pulitzer Prize, and galvanized two generations — I believe she’ll be galvanizing more for years to come. Though she has passed away, her legacy, and, specifically, the legacy of her characters, lives on. Writers like me will always look to her as an example of what it means to tell a story worth telling, and to tell it well. And students like mine will continue to see her as many things: homework, a grade, a long gone author, and, hopefully, an inspiration.
Atticus Finch’s virtue continues to stand as an example in our often divided society. And beyond him, the flesh and blood example of Christ and his truth looms even larger. Where one fictional lawyer took a stand for one individual who the town saw as wretched, an all-too-real Savior took on the cross for a wretch like me (1 Peter 3:18). Where the fictional lawyer’s heroics could be somewhat overshadowed by the stroke of a pen, Christ’s perfection remains as trustworthy and sure as our salvation by his blood (Ephesians 1:13–14).
Ultimately, Atticus Finch’s fight for justice is incomplete; his champion has passed away, and before she did, she showed us that our hero was, in fact, more complicated than we ever realized. She also showed us the power of story to declare impactful truths. My hope is to see a generation of storytellers rising up to stand in her wake, communicating truths in just as winsome and unapologetic a way as she did, and anchoring those stories in the ultimate truth and healing power of the gospel.
And I hope that at least some of them get to be named Atticus.