Abraham Lincoln is certainly the greatest lawyer America has ever produced, but his career hasn’t resonated much in the legal profession. A few years back John and I touched on the theme of Lincoln’s legal career in “A genius for friendship.”
For a time Clarence Darrow seemed to serve as an inspirational figure for attorneys. The historical novelist Irving Stone wrote a popular biography of Darrow, and Inherit the Wind immortalized a version of Darrow as a slayer of Bible Belt ignorance in a highly stylized version of the Scopes trial story. (Edward Larson supplied the historical corrective in Summer for the Gods.)
In the past 40 years, however, perhaps no one figure has been more responsible for inspiring students to pursue a career in law than Atticus Finch. The hero of To Kill a Mockingbird is the Platonic Idea of an American attorney: brave, righteous, fair, devoted to his client regardless of the unpopularity of his cause. Commentators on To Kill a Mockingbird observe that Harper Lee based the figure of Atticus Finch on her father, Amassa Coleman Lee, and the trial that lies at the center of the novel on the case of the Scottsboro boys.
To Kill a Mockingbird has enjoyed a popular success of a rare kind, becoming one of the best-selling novels of all time. Like other such popular novels — think of Ben-Hur, for example — it easily lent itself to becoming a popular movie. (In the case of Ben-Hur, make that two popular movies.) Take nothing away from Horton Foote’s fine script or Gregory Peck’s terrific performance; novels that touch a deep popular chord seem without exception to have their success translated into other forms.
Last week Harper Lee emerged for an essay contest awards ceremony in Tuscaloosa, Alabama that was covered in a good New York Times article: “Harper Lee, gregarious for a day.” The Times article prompted Professor Wilfred McClay’s post at the First Things On the Square site. McClay writes acutely about the novel: