Harper Lee and Her Father, the Real Atticus Finch Image

Howell Raines in The New York Times:

When “Go Set a Watchman” was published in 2015, an Alabama lawyer called me with a catch in his voice. Had I heard that his hero Atticus Finch had an evil twin? Unlike the virtuous lawyer who saved an innocent black man from a lynch mob in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the segregationist Atticus organized the white citizens council, figuratively speaking, in Boo Radley’s peaceful backyard. Three years later, my friend still believes that Harper Lee was tricked, in her dotage, into shredding the image of perhaps the only white Alabamian other than Helen Keller to be admired around the world. Never mind that this better Atticus is fictional; my home state has learned to grab admiration where it can.

Atticus-worship is not confined to Alabamians who revere the saint portrayed in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and then enshrined in 1962’s movie version by a magisterially virtuous Gregory Peck. By winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961 and selling more than 40 million copies worldwide, Lee’s novel created a global role model for a virtuous life. Even the gifted Northern novelist Jonathan Franzen cited the original Atticus as the epitome of moral perfection in a New Yorker essay on Edith Wharton.

Although dismaying to some Lee fans, the belated publication of “Watchman,” an apprentice work containing the germ plasm of “Mockingbird,” cast light on the virtues and limitations of the author and her canonical novel. It also opened the door to serious scholarship like “Atticus Finch: The Biography,” Joseph Crespino’s crisp, illuminating examination of Harper Lee’s dueling doppelgängers and their real-life model, Lee’s politician father, A. C. Lee. Crespino, who holds a wonderful title — he is the Jimmy Carter professor of history at Emory University — displays a confident understanding of the era of genteel white supremacists like A. C. Lee. He understands that the New South still labors, as Lee’s daughter did throughout her long, complicated life, under an old shadow. This book’s closely documented conclusion is that A. C. Lee, who once chased an integrationist preacher out of the Monroeville Methodist Church, and his devoted albeit sporadically rebellious daughter, Nelle Harper Lee, both wanted the world to have a better opinion of upper-class Southern WASPs than they deserve. These are the people Harper Lee and I grew up among — educated, well-read, well-traveled Alabamians who would never invite George Wallace into their homes, but nonetheless watched in silence as he humiliated poor Alabama in the eyes of the world.

More here.