To Kill a Mockingbird is downtown this week as part of the Summer Movie Classics series, and I thought of going this afternoon but didn't make it in time. It made me think about how I should have included Atticus Finch in my "Handsome Is as Handsome Does" post a few weeks ago. He's another of my literary heroes.
I got a paperback copy of the novel when I was 12 through one of those book clubs you join at school. Reading it wasn't so much like reading a novel as inhabiting a world, and it was a world that looked a lot like the one I was in. Rarely, if ever, have I read anything that seemed so true to life. I never lived in a small Alabama town, but Maycomb was enough like the small Kentucky town I was in to seem as if it all could have been taking place just down the street.
The noble and the ignoble side by side . . . character after character seemed to jump off the page with a three-dimensional reality. I kept thinking, "I know these people." Miss Stephanie Crawford, for one, was a ringer for one of my relatives. Scout, Jem, and Dill could have been my brother and me running around with a neighborhood friend. The prejudice, the small-mindedness, the nobility, the courage, the terrors of growing up . . . there wasn't a false note in it anywhere. By the end of it, I almost felt that I had once dressed up as a ham for a pageant and been rescued by Boo Radley.
When I first saw the movie on TV years ago, I was a bit thrown off by several things, including the actress who portrayed Scout. Actually, she did a good job but didn't look quite the way I had pictured the character. In my mind, Scout had pigtails and a sturdier, more tomboyish appearance than the gamine-faced actress in the film. And even though the movie, as I remember it, was faithful to the book in both spirit and many of its details, it must have been difficult to bring such a fully-realized world to the screen without missing something in the translation.
One thing that couldn't have gone any better was the casting of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. If ever anyone was born to play that character, it was Mr. Peck. Calm, compassionate, intelligent and well-reasoned, full of integrity . . . who wouldn't want Atticus for a father? When I think of the story, I don't think first of all the ugliness of human nature it exposes. I think of Atticus, facing down the mad dog, sitting outside the jail overnight to protect Tom Robinson, or ruffling Scout's hair after quietly explaining some important fact of life to her. I came away from the book with a belief that despite everything, decency, goodness, and wisdom create a structure that can withstand some mighty powerful storms.
Mythically, Atticus resembles Zeus at his most benign. He stands for justice and fairness and the importance of respecting principles and laws. Not the loudest or most flamboyant attorney you'd ever meet, but forceful in a different way. The kind of absent-minded father that kids might find faintly ridiculous until they were old enough to understand what was really ticking underneath the mild manner and modest exterior.
I'm not aware that Harper Lee wrote any other novels besides To Kill a Mockingbird, but I guess if you were only going to write one, this would be it. The story and the characters are timeless, and the writing is flawless. Although it has some of the tragedy of a Greek drama, it does not have quite the same fatalism. In spite of everything, Atticus will be there in the morning when Jem wakes up, and that seems to make all the difference.