Atlanta attorney’s memoir sheds new light on the Atticus Finch controversy

Echoes of Atticus
Illustration by Richard Mia

Illustration by Richard Mia

Refer to it as an Atticus flinch: the involuntary shudder felt when encountering another headline about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Last summer time the late author sparked the literary debate from the decade using the publication of the half-baked follow up, Go Set a Watchman, which wrecked the status of Lee’s once-beloved hero. Readers who’re still gun-shy following the Watchman debate might find a modicum of security in Frederick Madison Beck’s new memoir, My Dad & Atticus Finch: A Lawyer’s Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama.

Beck, an Atlanta attorney and Emory School adjunct professor, adds texture and context to Lee’s novels by recounting their own tense genealogy. In 1938 the author’s father defended a black man charged with raping a white-colored lady in Troy, Alabama. Drawing from letters, newspaper articles, court papers, and remembered conversations, it graciously reconstructs an egregious miscarriage of justice inside a bygone era. Judge drama unfolds in language that’s immediate and motion picture, even when some scenes border on twee.

While similarities to Mockingbird are indisputable, Beck simply hopes that his father’s story might have inspired Lee. “I don’t doubt that her novel is fiction,” he writes. “But might tales . . . nevertheless have filtered right through to Monroeville, and in south Alabama, where Ms. Lee, at that time 12 years of age, increased up?”

As with Watchman, the main focus drifts into deliberations on topics varying in the Ku Klux Klan to Hank Aaron’s mixed-race baseball league. Beck also views the “blind spots” among the era’s progressives, which will help reveal Finch’s questionable views within the follow up.

Based on the preface, Beck’s manuscript was finished prior to the discharge of Watchman, “a book which brings in your thoughts the issue: who’s the actual Atticus Finch-the beloved lawyer in Mockingbird or even the paternalistic bigot of Watchman? The simple truth is, there have been both types of Atticus . . . in south Alabama in individuals days.” My Dad and Atticus Finch might not solve the Gordian knot of race relations within the Jim Crow South, however it helps map the thorny landscape that later hatched a work of art.

This short article initially made an appearance within our June 2016 issue.