MAY 20, 2018
ON DECEMBER 25, 1956, 30-year-old Harper Lee received a Christmas gift that is the stuff of dreams for aspiring writers: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please,” her friends explained of their financial largesse. What she produced as a result of this generosity was the novel Go Set a Watchman.
That first novel was a tough sell, explains historian Joseph Crespino in his new book, Atticus Finch, The Biography: Harper Lee, Her Father, and the Making of an American Icon. Lee was a “good writer … damned good,” an editor at Harper & Brothers, which had just published John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage, replied to the submission. But he did not believe that there was enough of a story in Lee’s manuscript, and the grown-up Jean Louise Finch was not nearly as lovable to male editors as she would become as six-year-old “Scout,” her younger tomboy version. “Somehow having her wear pants just rubs me the wrong way,” the editor explained. Other editors responded similarly.
Following the advice of her agent, Lee continued writing, and two years later she finished her second novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which follows Watchman’s characters 20 years earlier. The Atticus Finch of Mockingbird is a role model to his children, while in Watchman Jean Louise is pained by her father’s bigotry. Written in part from a child’s perspective, Mockingbird portrays a clearly heroic Atticus. Published 55 years later, in 2015, Watchman revealed Lee’s conflicted feelings about principled segregationists such as her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, upon whom Atticus is based.
“It is and it isn’t autobiographical,” Lee told reporters in 1962 after the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was released (published in 1960, Mockingbird won the Pulitzer the following year). At that point, her statement was particularly notable because of the casting of Gregory Peck, who had already earned his bona fides as the embodiment of integrity by playing Phil Green in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), a role that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The decency that Peck exemplified as an undercover journalist exposing anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement was amplified in his portrayal of Atticus, and the alchemy of actor and literary character has rarely been as powerful.
In Mockingbird, Lee transformed her father — a newspaper editor and Alabama attorney — into the crusading lawyer Atticus Finch, who for decades has been among the few figures in American popular culture that have given the legal profession a good name. Addressing a rapt courtroom audience in a memorable scene, Peck-as-Atticus speaks of the courts as the “great levelers” in American society, reminding his audience that theirs is a country in which all men are created equal. Echoing the feelings of many lawyers (according to the American Bar Association, which has noted the effect of Atticus on the legal profession), legal scholar Dahlia Lithwick wrote in a 2010 Guardian piece, “I am one of many thousands of people who probably would not have gone to law school were it not for the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird [sic].”
But it was not only as a lawyer that Atticus made a singular impression on American readers and viewers; it was also through his paternal qualities (in Gentleman’s Agreement Peck also plays a widowed father). To reach readers in the Baby Boom generation, Lee focused on making Atticus a model father in a way that she had not done in her first novel. When he chooses to take the case of a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman, he does so to set an example for his children. The film includes many tender father-child scenes, including bedtime with Scout, which shows Peck-as-Atticus gently tucking his daughter in, reading with her, listening to her, and reassuring her.
In spite of — or, perhaps, because of — his draining work defending the unjustly accused, Atticus is an exemplary parent. In his biography of the character, Crespino, an author (In Search of Another Country) and Jimmy Carter Professor of History at Emory University, argues that Atticus became an especially heroic icon as a single father in a way that rarely adheres to single mothers. Far from being a flaw, Atticus’s unconventionality is a positive trait, and, Crespino writes, “[T]he fact that his children call him by his first name, and that he reads to them not from children’s books but from the Alabama legislative code or Palgrave’s Golden Treasury only add to his charm.”
Lee’s focus on parenting is anachronistic for a book set in the 1930s, Crespino points out, but it’s entirely in keeping with the values of the Baby Boom generation that first read Mockingbird. A 1962 dinner-party discussion of the novel captured in a Chicago Tribune article included one mother’s typical feelings about Atticus: “He stands for integrity, for justice regardless of race, religion, or anything. And the way his example molded the characters of that little girl and boy! It’s great.”
Perhaps it was living in New York City alongside other struggling, misfit artists that allowed Lee, by the time she wrote Mockingbird, to transform the eccentric and difficult parts of her Southern upbringing into winning qualities. Whatever the influence, it was its own kind of heroic work.
By the time Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, readers expected a pleasant reunion with their beloved literary saint. Instead, they received a complicated surprise. “Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in her New York Times review,
Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
Readers probably should not have felt so startled by Atticus’s darker side. As historian Linda Gordon makes clear in her recent study The Second Coming of the KKK (2017), the 1920s version of the KKK was well integrated into American life. Membership in the fraternal order had become just another expression of Americanism.
Watchman chronicles Jean Louise’s — and Lee’s — coming to terms with her father. It also demonstrates Lee wrestling with her identity as a Southern writer. This is evident in one internal dialogue that shows Jean Louise engaging with an imagined Northern audience:
“New York has all the answers.” New York knows who Jean Louise is, knows what kind of people she comes from. “Please believe me,” Jean Louise imagined herself saying, “what has happened in my family is not what you think. I can only say this — that everything I learned about human decency I learned here.”
Only at the end of Watchman does Jean Louise arrive at her assessment that Atticus is a good man. Judging from readers’ reactions in 2015 and since, many thought that was far too long to follow Jean Louise (and Lee) before arriving back at their familiar positive feelings about him. Still, Watchman could never erase the profound effects of the novel that first earned Lee her fame.
Sometimes what a writer produces comes to seem so elemental to the culture — almost part of the air we breathe — that it is nearly impossible to imagine that there was a time prior to its existence. Authors change us, and our worlds, through the gifts of their creations. One of the many strengths of Crespino’s fine book is that he shows us exactly where Atticus Finch came from and why he has come to occupy such an important place in our national consciousness. For Americans, Atticus became tied up with what a lawyer could, and should, be. But there was a breaking-in period. When the film first came out, Peck was grilled about the man he portrayed. Reporters from outside the United States were particularly skeptical. Crespino writes,
An Israeli reporter asked Peck whether the character of Atticus was not too good to be true. “This is an ordinary type of American,” Peck replied. “My father was like this, and the father of Harper Lee … is like this also.”
Lee made possible this belief, that Atticus is that good — and, by extension, that Americans are that good. When Watchman was published and readers learned that there was more to Atticus than the altruistic paragon embodied by Gregory Peck, their reactions were fit for a psychology textbook. It’s difficult to accept ugly truths about a hero.
It’s amusing to think that had Watchman been published today, just three years later, readers would likely experience Atticus as a version of the once-great, fallen man so familiar from recent national news headlines. If that has become, however sadly, a new kind of American tale, then the story of Lee’s novels is only fitting: first she gave Americans a hero, and then she exposed his messy complications. In both instances she elicited the strongest of emotional responses from readers. Could a writer hope for anything more?