The creation and evolution of a fictional character serves as a mirror of racial politics.
Atticus Finch appeared in two novels written by Harper Lee: as the hero of the Pulitzer Prize–winning To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960; and as a more complex character—hardly a “touchstone of decency and goodness”—in Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman, not published until 2015. Crespino (History/Emory Univ.; Strom Thurmond’s America, 2012, etc.) makes the fictional Atticus central to his study of Lee’s father, lawyer and newspaper editor A.C. Lee; Harper’s career as a writer; and, what gives the book heft, a close look at the Southern politics and civil rights struggles in the 1950s and ’60s from which Lee’s fiction emerged. When Mockingbird first appeared, A.C. was surprised when his neighbors in Monroeville, Alabama, greeted him as Atticus Finch. “He hadn’t recognized himself in the book at all,” writes the author. Nor would he have recognized himself in the “shrewd lawyer” with racist views of Go Set a Watchman. Lee’s first book was unsettling to many of Mockingbird’s fans precisely because Atticus was both a “principled southerner” and “a pragmatic segregationist.” While biographers have assumed A.C. was the inspiration for Atticus in Mockingbird, Crespino probes the extent to which Lee portrayed her father in the darker Watchman. Besides drawing on newly available correspondence, he examines hundreds of editorials in which A.C. expressed opinions on local and national issues to offer a nuanced portrait of a man of “paternalistic sensibilities” who “saw no profit in inflaming racial passions on either side of the color line.” The Atticus of Mockingbird, who exuded “moral courage, tolerance, and understanding,” evolved, Crespino asserts, from the portrayal in Watchman of a man who abided the “hypocrisy and injustice” of his own generation. Lee’s Atticus was himself transformed by Gregory Peck in a movie adaptation that underscored stalwart virtue.
An informed look at Southern history refracted through the lens of fiction.