How to lose a case and save your soul

Harper Lee
Harper Lee




It’s a strange thing that the most famous legal thriller in American history is one in which the lawyer lost the big case.

Of course, I am referring to Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD.  Atticus Finch faced a trial not of his own choosing (he was appointed to it) and poured himself heart and soul into a case he knew he would lose.  Not only did the jury rule against him, but his client, in the depths of despair, attempted an escape which he knew would result in his death.

In a society obsessed with winning, this story is an outlier, a conundrum, a mystery.

So what makes it work?

The lesson I take from it is that legal cases are powerful symbols about what is wrong with a society at a particular point in its history.  They are snapshots of the mores of the times and the rules that apply to specific situations.

Atticus and Scout
Atticus and Scout

I grew up in the South in the 1950s.  So TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD seemed more like a story from the headlines than a work of fiction. Racism permeated small-town America in the South of those days.  No one believed a black man could receive a fair trial in front of a white jury.  The scandal, for those who held a death grip on the status quo, would have been if Atticus won.

I’m not sugar-coating this.  And neither did Harper Lee.  The power of her book stemmed from its metaphorical, artistic approach to the hottest topic, the most important social issue, of her day. Told through the naive eyes of children, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD exposed the horror of man’s hatred of those unlike him and challenged the moral values that underpinned a whole way of life.

The stakes were life and death, freedom, the intrinsic worth of all human beings.

What can writers glean from such a book?

The poet James Russell Lowell wrote that new occasions teach new duties.  For the writer this means that he must serve as a barometer of the times. His calling, if I may refer to it so, is to sense the fault lines of his day and to address them in the way only a writer can. To put it another way, the writer is not a leaf blown about by every wind that blows.  He does no service to his art if he simply mimics the values of the majority and seeks the approval of the power brokers.


It is his obligation to expose secrets discussed in dark corners, to shine a bright light on things society prefers to keep hidden. For him, popularity must take its rightful seat at the back of the bus.

Harper Lee understood that Atticus Finch must be willing to lose a case in order to save his soul. In the process of telling his story, she showed the way to a world where such cases could be relegated to the ash heap of history.


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