Friends and Fellow Lawyers:
I met Gregory Peck some years ago.
He was on tour talking about his movies. I wanted his autograph. When I mentioned that I taught legal ethics, he invited me to his dressing room for a chat. He was in his mid-80s, quick witted, dignified, friendly. It was like meeting Atticus Finch in the flesh.
Ralph Cagle, U.W. 1974, is of counsel to Hurley, Burish & Stanton, S.C., Madison, practicing principally in professional responsibility law and serving as a mediator. He is also an emeritus clinical professor at the U.W. Law School.
We talked about To Kill a Mockingbird. He reminisced about movie children Mary Badham and Phillip Alford, and the lifelong friendship he had formed with Harper Lee, Mockingbird’s author. He wanted me to appreciate Mockingbird’senduring impact. Since the movie, he constantly received letters from lawyers and judges attesting to how Atticus Finch influenced their career choice and from young people who saw in Atticus inspiration for doing the right thing when called to act for others and for justice.
Atticus Finch, courageous lawyer, instructive parent, community leader, is an American hero drawn from three sources: Harper Lee’s sharp eye and deft hand; Gregory Peck’s compelling performance; and the public’s choice to admire, embrace and, when able, emulate him.(The book won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has sold over 40 million copies. Gregory Peck received a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance. The American Film Institute ranked Atticus Finch first on its list of the “100 Greatest Movie Heroes.”)
A “discovered” draft version of Mockingbird was recently published as Go Set a Watchman. The publisher reports that Harper Lee produced this manuscript in the 1950s, but they rejected it. She was urged to retell her story as what Scout Finch saw in 1930s Alabama. Shelving the manuscript, Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and the rest is literary and cultural history.
We don’t know what Harper Lee thinks or even knows about publishing this draft as her work. She is sequestered from public contact by a lawyer claiming to be her guardian, spokesperson, agent, advisor, and friend.
Harper Lee chose Mockingbird as her full and final word about Scout as a perceptive and sensitive young woman and Atticus as a father, lawyer, and citizen worthy of our admiration.
Watchman, set 20 years after the events in Mockingbird, is a disappointing effort. Scout, the bold and inspiring female character in Mockingbird, has grown into a muddled fault-finding critic in Watchman. No character, event, or condition escapes her dour diagnosis. Atticus has become old, peripheral, feeble, and is portrayed as frightened by the emerging Civil Rights movement. While Watchman will make money for someone, it denigrates the inspiring vision of courage and service embraced by Lee, Peck, and millions of appreciative fans, particularly young people.
That Harper Lee sanctioned publishing Watchman is highly suspect. Her imposed isolation precludes a reliable answer. The public always clamored for another Harper Lee novel, but she never offered Watchman to fill that void. In her forword to the 35th anniversary edition of Mockingbird, she said: “Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”
Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s full and final word on Scout as a perceptive and sensitive young woman and Atticus as a father, lawyer, and citizen, both characters worthy of our admiration.
Most of us are grateful for Mockingbird’s gift and its calling so many to serve justice.