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Law School Edition: Well, I guess we can’t use Atticus Finch in our law school apps anymore



America needs its heroes. Our heroes are confident, but not cocky. Wise, but not pedantic. Charismatic, but soft spoken. This summer, an American hero’s legacy was crushed under the weight of his own bigotry.

With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the To Kill a Mockingbird sequel published 55 years after the original novel, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch takes the train from New York to visit her family in Maycomb, Ala. and reconnect with her father, Atticus Finch.

This isn’t the same Atticus from Mockingbird, which takes place about 15 years before in the early 1930s. Readers will remember the OG civil rights attorney and single dad from Mockingbird, determined to ensure decent living for all. The original, younger Atticus imparted profound fatherly advice like, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

The radical Atticus defended Tom Robinson, a black man, accused of raping a white woman in Mockingbird. He’s the clichéd example of a role model cited by students in law school applications. He’s an inspiration, the unlikely hero Maycomb needs and deserves. But Watchman reveals a different side to Atticus.

When you open Watchman, you shouldn’t expect to read about Atticus climbing a flagpole in South Carolina and tearing down the Confederate flag. Now 72, arthritic and surly, this is the Atticus who dabbles in Ku Klux Klan meetings, and who could lose his job if someone covertly recorded his racist musings.

He asks Jean, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” He also remarks that African-Americans “are still in their childhood as a people.”

Atticus of the 1950s is now the antithesis of his former self, causing many readers to be disillusioned.

The New York Times’ Alexandra Alter wrote: “If Mockingbird sugarcoats racial divisions by depicting a white man as the model for justice in an unjust world, then Watchman may be like bitter medicine that more accurately reflects the times.”

Author Alexander Chee wrote for The Guardian, “We are in a novel with an infinitely more complicated moral landscape, which clearly hoped to describe the damning nature of the entire system of white supremacy.”

Even Jean Louise is bummed about it. In Watchman, she remarks “…[t]he one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her […] betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”

Watchman borrows its title from the Biblical verse Isaiah 21:6, which states, “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, ‘Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.’”

For Lee, lawyers and watchmen are not very far apart. In a world plagued by immorality and misjudgment, one must be declared a “watchman,” or a saintly guide to navigate our way out of prejudice and intolerance.

Author Harper Lee wrote Watchman back in the mid-fifties. Editors originally rejected Lee’s manuscript of Watchman, and were more interested in the novel’s flashbacks, which became the catalyst for Mockingbird.

Published at the arrival of the civil rights movement, Mockingbird became a landmark text for equality among all races. The Watchman manuscript was believed to have been lost before it was discovered in a safe-deposit box last August.

Watchman doesn’t just complicate the legacy of a romanticized civil rights attorney; it also makes it harder to write an application letter to law school.


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Emerson Malone

Emerson Malone

Podcast producer with The Daily Emerald and student research fellow with the UO-UNESCO Crossings Institute.