The Strange Career of Atticus Finch
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ESSAY The Strange Career ofAtticus Finch by Joseph Crespino ß^^^?? ontemporary debates concerning race in America owe much to ^^H| the 1960s when African Americans and other minority groups _____^^^1 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 above: In defense ofthe "helpless"? Gregory Peck asAtticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Courtesy ofUniversalPictures and the Museum ofModern ArtFilm StillsArchive. course of the twentieth century, but particularly with the¿\tticUS Finchflowering of African American studies, the era in which i-ir· white intellectuals debated die "Negro problem" among J themselves has ended once and for all. In coundess cul- Ü touchstoneturai productions and scholarlyworks from the civil rights r r j era and more recent decades, African Americans are the¦/ o J J subjects in the exploration of racial inequality in Ameriand respect.can history and life. And yet looming among the most popular and enduring works on racial matters since the ........................ 1960s is HarperLee's To KillaMockingbird, the Depressionera account of Atticus Finch's legal defense of a black man wrongly accused ofraping a white woman, told through the eyes of Finch's nine-year-old daughter, Scout. In the twentieth century, To KillaMockingbirdis probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, die most enduring fictional image ofracial heroism. Published in die fall of i960, 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 storywas 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 briefrole as the mysterious Boo Radley, the first ofhis seemingly coundess screen appearances. It is estimated that by 1982 To Kill a Mockingbird'had sold over fifteen million copies, and a 1991 American "Survey ofLifetime Reading Habits" by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress revealed that next to die 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 adviserJames 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 ofrace." Evidence ofthe novel's continuing influence on rising generations can be found on the internet, where dozens ofhigh school and college chat groups discuss the adventures of the Finch children or debate the meaning of the Radley neighbors. Atticus Finch himselfremains a touchstone figure ofdecency 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 ofa mystery that die book has failed 10 southern cultures, Summer2000 ¡Joseph Crespino The tales ofHuck andJim in Twain'sgreat novelabout race in theAmerican South, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, invite comparison to Lie's To Kill a Mockingbird. Front coverfrom the Signet Classic release, published by Penquin Books USA Incorporated, New York, New York. to arouse the antagonism now often prompted by another great novelistic depiction ofthe South . . . Adventures ofHuckleberry Finn, which arguably uses...