Finding Atticus

To Kill A MockingbirdAfter Atticus pulled Calpurnia away from Aunt Alexandra and the Maycomb missionary circle ladies, Aunt Alexandra asked Miss Maudie when it would stop. (Chapter 24, To Kill A Mockingbird)

“I can’t say I approve of everything he does Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I just want to know when this will ever end.” Her voice rose: “It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him to pieces. I’ve seen him when — what else do they want from him, Maudie, what else?”

“What does who want, Alexandra?” Miss Maudie asked.

“I mean this town. They’re perfectly willing to let him do what they’re afraid to do themselves – it might lose ‘em a nickel. They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do, they’re —“

“Be quiet, they’ll hear you,” said Miss Maudie. “Have you ever thought of it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.”

It wasn’t just that Maycomb trusted Atticus to do right, they expected him to DO, period. They knew he was a man of action, that he’d do something – and that they’d be alright with whatever that something was because they knew well what to expect of Atticus.

Atticus didn’t put on airs, pretend to be something he wasn’t. Just as Miss Maudie liked to comment, he’s “the same in his house as he is on the public streets.”

I’ve not read Go Set A Watchman, so I can’t comment on the Atticus of that story, but the Mockingbird version seemed even-handed, fair and loving to his kids, and skilled without wearing his accomplishments for all to see, like a Saran Wrap wallet. Instead, his accomplishments were tucked away, his skills held close, available to be pulled out for use within his life, rather than as the forces driving his life.

In a time with such a “me” focus, it’s reassuring to think of someone who is a doer, without talking about being a doer; someone who goes to court, instead of changing their Facebook profile picture in a show of solidarity with someone who is in court; someone who is willing to take risks because it is the right thing to do; someone who ignores a troll who spits in his face because he understands the troll’s motivations; someone who won’t be heckled or stopped by hate; someone who continues to evolve, not perfect, but open to change.

It’s a shame that someone is fiction.

Think Bradbury and Bowie will send him down from Mars to us?

A nice thing to think about.

(*I read Mockingbird in one sitting while stuck in the airport during last week’s East Coast snowstorm. Almost 30 years after my first reading. If your Mockingbird gap is as large, go back to revisit it. Experience and time, and the lack of a high school English teacher forcing her theories, made for one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time. Finding Atticus was like revisiting an old friend. He reminded me of the importance of doing the hard work — and of the equally important work of the Calpurnia’s, Miss Maudie’s, Scout’s and Jem’s. Different roles. All important.)

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  1. Mary Doyle on January 29, 2016 at 4:19 am

    I know what I’ll be reading this weekend. It’s probably been 45 years for me – thanks Callie!

    • Joel D Canfield on January 29, 2016 at 7:24 am

      I think I’ll specifically not post a confession here . . . but I’ll get it from the library as soon as we’re back from our left coast trip, I promise.

  2. Robin on January 29, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Thank you.

  3. David Kaufmann on January 29, 2016 at 2:19 pm


  4. Sean Crawford on January 29, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    I can’t resist saying that Tom Cruise’s character, in the American remake of Vanilla Sky, sent down Atticus to meet him. There is power in fiction.

    You end with ‘it’s a shame,’ yet… at least there is power for us mortals on the page.

    I think of non-affluent people fictionalizing Jesse James, saying he helped a widow. I have never forgotten a line about the need for fiction in an episode of Firefly called, I think, Janestown. The tramp freighter Serenity pulls into a harbour and discovers people have built a statue to Jane, because they have made him a folk hero. Jane wants to wreck the statue, refuse any honour.

    The freighter captain quietly tells him to let it be, saying, “It’s not about you, it’s about them.”

    I guess, when we write, we have a duty to “them.”

  5. Brian on January 29, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    Another great post. I recently re-read Mockingbird myself. In fact, it was almost immediately after the news of the “Go Set a Watchman” release.

    I absolutely agree that literature ‘changes’ as we age & mature. The Jeff Spicoli that Cliff-Noted most books in high school/college lit had a different experience than the 40-something retired Soldier reading “Mockingbird, War & Peace, Crime & Punishment, Iron Mask…”

    Victor Davis Hanson wrote a piece back in 2009 about the ‘depression among us’. The economy was in tatters. Blame was/is the weapon of choice. Uncertainty palpable. Problems were/are too big. We can’t build anything. We kick problems down the road. Blah, blah, blah.

    He used the term, “…what we long for (American public) is the unapologetic doer…” I loved that term. It is so clear. Unapologetic Doer.

    So…Howard Roarkish. So…Atticusish.
    Thanks again.

  6. Keith G Shafer on January 29, 2016 at 10:49 pm

    I have to confess I hadn’t read TKAM until recently…what was I thinking? I found Harper Lee’s book one of the best I’ve ever read. Steven’s take on Atticus is spot on and I too long for the days of inner fortitude rather than FaceBook “openness” From what I’ve read about how Go Set a Watchman made it through the publishers, I’m not sure if I care to read it. Thanks, Steven.

  7. Anne on January 30, 2016 at 12:53 am

    Go Set A Wstchman….slow and a difficult read after the beloved Mockingbird. Imagine if thru different plot twists, Jean Louise were black!!

  8. Foote-Davies Patricia on May 24, 2020 at 3:35 pm

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