Literature, Law, and Atticus Finch

The day Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was released, Distinguished Professor of Law Judy Cornett (A&S ’77; LAW ’82) read the entire book. Though she holds a JD and teaches law, Cornett earned master’s and doctoral degrees in English and has always had a great interest in Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Since taking part in a 2007 panel examining the influence of literary lawyers and judicial films on modern-day attorneys, Cornett’s appreciation for Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird has deepened. She has presented her thoughts at several conferences and lectured in continuing legal education programs, examining Finch’s behavior according to modern ethics rules, specifically the Model Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers.

There’s been a lot of buzz around Go Set a Watchman due to its origins and the surprising picture it paints of Finch, who has long been considered a hero in American fiction.

Here are Cornett’s five things you need to know about Go Set a Watchman.

  1. Go Set a Watchman is the story of twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch (known as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird), who returns to her roots in Maycomb, Alabama—the small-town Deep South—after living in New York City for five years. The story is told in the third person but reads like a first-person narrative. Like her younger self in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise is a sharp social critic. Her observations about her culture are witty and sometimes caustic.
  1. The novel takes place in the late 1950s, after the US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which compelled the racial integration of public schools.
  1. Jean Louise must come to terms with how Maycomb reacts to legally mandated racial integration, which has brought to the surface racial tensions that were submerged during her idealized childhood. The denizens of her hometown—including her father, Atticus Finch, now seventy-two years old—resist integration. Her father argues on constitutional grounds that the federal government should not impose fundamental social change on states. Jean Louise counters that the ruling does no more than provide justice for African Americans, a principle which Atticus himself upheld in his defense of a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.
  1. The conflict between Jean Louise and Atticus exemplifies the collision between ideals and reality that inevitably accompanies life experience. Jean Louise judges Atticus, but the novel points out that belonging to a community requires that we move beyond judgment.
  1. The question for Jean Louise is what does it mean to be from Maycomb but not of it? Is there a way to renounce the community’s—and her father’s—racism without renouncing the people she loves, and even herself? Indeed, the novel suggests that this is the dilemma for all progressive southerners. As her Uncle Jack says, “[I]t takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days.”

You may also like


Lee Bussart July 21, 2015 - 6:23 pm

Well said, Professor Cornett! I very much enjoyed the book. It was Scout’s Coming of Age. The poor reviews confound me.

Katherine van Wormer July 21, 2015 - 7:52 pm

I haven’t gotten to read the new book yet, but from what I’ve read I don’t believe there are two Atticuses. His racial views are consistent with his legal work toward justice and membership in the White Citizens Council. I well remember segregationists who loved black people as servants and as individuals but also who believed in fair treatment of blacks in everyday life. They also felt superior and didn’t want the races to mix. I once read that Harper Lee’s father on whom the Atticus character was based was a segregationist. Most white southerners were. I remember as I was active in the Civil Rights Movement and debated family members all the time. People tend to defend their privileges and resist change. They are not all bad people. They backed up those they saw as good blacks.
I look forward to reading this new book, the original version and reconciling the two portraits of one southern lawyer who was not completely ahead of his time.
Katherine van Wormer
co-author of The Maid Narratives

Linda Overly July 21, 2015 - 8:07 pm

This should be a very interesting !

Donna Zaryski July 22, 2015 - 10:57 am

Atticus Finch was assumed to be in favor of racial equality in To Kill a Mockingbird because he took a stand and chose to defend a black man against injustice. Atticus was simply following his convictions as an attorney in upholding the law, and not necessarily his racial convictions, which no one bothered to note lest they be labeled a racist. Harper Lee has clearly demonstrated in Go Set a Watchman that too many readers held Atticus Finch as a literary hero based on their own assumptions, once again illustrating her brilliance in writing, or the lack of brilliance in readers! In fact, Atticus’ own daughter, Scout, had her own immature assumptions in the novel. Just because Atticus Finch did not think black people were “bad” people, never necessarily meant that he did not agree with segregation, but it certainly set Scout thinking for herself and establishing her own convictions. In the real world, people will always segregate themselves based on many social factors, (cultural, economical, religious, or whatever) but it doesn’t have to necessarily mean that the races think bad of one another. As much as these social factors can divide, they can also unite. Kudos to Ms. Lee for once again demonstrating the power of storytelling!

Donna Kane July 23, 2015 - 10:18 am

It took fifty- five years to kill a mockingbird, but now you can stick a fork in it.

Ron Welch July 24, 2015 - 11:13 am

I think Harper Lee obviously had a great understanding of the situation in the south when integration was being forced on small southern towns in the 60’s. At first it was resisted with the hope that a “separate but equal” formula would be accepted, which ultimately it wasn’t. Contrary to what those who did not live in the rural south believed, there was never hate for black people there, contrarily most of my playmates and most workers on the farm where I grew up were black and we were as close as I am to anyone today. Of course there was a wide gap educationally and economically. I recently visited my home town or Homer, Louisiana. Today the public swimming pool is closed, grown up with weeds and windows broken out of the facility. Once integration came the whites quit using the pool and it was vandalized, same with the tennis facility. The white students mostly attend private schools and the public schools are in terrible disrepair there. I believe Atticus saw that many changes would occur when integration was forced on the south and all would not be good for either race. Sixty years later, if you look at Homer, Louisiana, he was right.

Charlie Trotter August 18, 2015 - 2:58 pm

I am a native of that part of southeast/south central Alabama but a Tennessean by prescription. I remember Harper Lee speaking to my grade school class the year she won the Pulitzer Prize and seeing the movie at the Downtown Theater in Mobile. I grew up around a south Alabama courthouse, became a southern lawyer and the parent of one. My copy of Watchman sits on the shelf right next to my autographed copy of Mockingbird. Atticus Finch remains the hero all who understand that part of the world always knew him to be, the “immature assumptions” of the critics notwithstanding. Right on the money, professor and the writer who made the observation about “immature assumptions.”


Leave a Comment