“Biography,” according to Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman, “is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world.” The lure of the genre, she argues, is its voyeuristic essence: “a kind of collusion” between the reader and the biographer in which they go “tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.”1
In his new book, Atticus Finch: The Biography, Emory University historian Joseph Crespino subverts both the premise and the essence of Malcolm’s definition. Atticus Finch is after all a fictional character, who, while famous, is not and never can be dead. And the tiptoeing journey on which Crespino invites his reader is not to the bedroom door, but through the library stacks.
The result is a fascinating analysis of Finch’s evolution in literature, film, and the American imagination. But it never yields to what Malcolm calls biography’s “transgressive nature.” Crespino ignores many of the most controversial questions that swirl around his subject. And along the way, he takes a disconcertingly ambivalent tone in his exploration of mid-20th-century Southern conservatism.
Atticus Finch has entered the American imagination three distinct times.
The first was with the 1960 publication of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl named Jean Louise Finch, whose nickname is Scout—though the narrative voice sometimes toggles between her and her grown-up self. Scout, her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, have a series of adventures as they come of age in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. Perhaps the most formative one revolves around the trial of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman; Robinson is defended in court by Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus Finch. For the next half-century, To Kill a Mockingbird became the closest thing America has to required reading.
In 1962, the story made it to the silver screen. Atticus was portrayed by Gregory Peck in a performance that catapulted him to a long-awaited Academy Award and the character of Atticus into history. The American Film Institute ranks Atticus the #1 Greatest Hero of All Time, ahead of Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Superman.
Then, in 2015, Atticus reentered the spotlight, in Go Set a Watchman. Written before To Kill a Mockingbird, in the mid-1950s, the unedited manuscript of Watchman had languished in a safe deposit box for years. The circumstances of the book’s publication were seen by many as suspect, especially given Lee’s old age at the time and her famous proclivity for silence (her last on-the-record interview was in 1964).
Equally controversial was Watchman’s version of Atticus. This time, the story is told from the point of view of a grown-up Jean Louise—or, to be more accurate, it is told via third-person narration that focuses mostly on her perspective. The events of Watchman are set 20 years after the events of Mockingbird, and Atticus, in the wake of the Brown v. Board decision, is mixed up with the White Citizens’ Council and espousing explicitly racist ideology.
Crespino’s book takes readers through the life of Harper Lee and her father, Amasa Coleman “A. C.” Lee, from the 1930s through the 1960s. Drawing on extensive archival research, including years of editorials written by A. C., Crespino painstakingly contextualizes the political environment in and around Monroeville, Alabama, the real-life avatar of Maycomb.
Atticus Finch was directly inspired by A. C. Lee. (Though apparently, after Mockingbird was published, he responded with surprise when people started calling him Atticus, because he didn’t see himself in the character.) As it turns out, Gregory Peck visited Monroeville and closely studied A. C. Lee’s “every mannerism” in preparation for his starring role in the film version of Mockingbird.
Crespino’s analysis of the role Peck played in shaping our conception of Atticus is excellent. When the producer-director team of Alan Pakula and Robert Mulligan brought on Peck, his star power (and his production company’s underwriting of the project) gave him an outsized role in the crafting of the film’s version of Atticus. Together, the three men pushed the screenwriter Horton Foote to revise the script multiple times with an eye toward heroifying Atticus. The result, Crespino argues, is that the complex character from the novel disappears, replaced by “the handsome, dignified, blandly white face of mid-twentieth-century American liberalism.”
Crespino argues that it wasn’t just the Atticus of Mockingbird that was inspired by A. C. Lee, but the Atticus of Watchman, too. We even learn that, as a college student, Harper Lee published thinly veiled attacks on her father’s conservatism that presaged the arguments between Jean Louise and Atticus in Go Set a Watchman.
Perhaps more importantly, Crespino makes it clear that the somewhat progressive Atticus of Mockingbird shows signs of evolving into the segregationist Atticus of Watchman. (In Mockingbird, for example, Atticus tells Scout he’s “about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin,” a white supremacist.) The two Atticuses are not, as some white readers have hoped, separate characters. They are the same man—one of the “white South’s principled conservatives”—in two different political moments.
Crespino further complicates our standard reading of Go Set a Watchman—Atticus is racist!?!—with a nuanced understanding of the book and its author. “By the end of the novel,” he reminds us, moving beyond the climactic confrontation between Jean Louise and Atticus, “it’s Jean Louise who has come to see the logic of Atticus’s position, not the other way around.”
Crespino’s point is as complex as it is crucial: Watchman wasn’t just about a disillusioned young woman returning home and confronting racism in her hometown—it “was essentially a vindication of segregationist defiance.” In a letter to a friend in which she echoes that defiance, Harper Lee implies that “nine-tenths of the South” favored segregation but despised the KKK. Crespino calls her out: “Nine-tenths of ‘the South’—by which Harper Lee would have meant the white South—did not despise the Ku Klux Klan.”
Such refereeing on Crespino’s part is too rare, though. In fact, his language often mirrors Lee’s—and Atticus’s—in its ambivalence.
Crespino contrasts two types of white Southerners: there are the ostensibly moderate segregationists like Watchman’s Atticus with their “learned, principled politics.” And there are the violent segregationists with their “militant resistance” to racial progress. In one chapter, “The Boiling Frog,” he offers an extended metaphor in which “the decent white folks” fail to see the rising urgency of the moment: “As the Klan raised the temperature of white resistance, they lost sense of just how hot the water had become.”
Later in the book, Crespino muses on “a southern tradition that had arisen in opposition to the detestable and appalling ones—the lynchings and political buffoonery—a tradition of civic-minded, conscientious, conservative men” that Lee sought to capture in the character of Atticus. He concedes that this tradition “would never be a simple or straightforward thing to explain or defend … White southerners lived in a moral thicket of their own making, and it was easy to lose one’s way.”
These passages echo Lee not only in their ambivalence, but in their shifting narrative voices. It is exceedingly difficult to determine, at any given moment, whether Crespino’s narration is intended to convey omniscience, the point of view of his subjects, or his own views.
It was not a lack of hindsight with which Lee was struggling—it was a lack of insight.
The result, intentional or otherwise, is that large swaths of his book actually feel very much like gentle attempts “to explain or defend” this particular tradition: the “learned, principled politics”; the innocent frogs who simply don’t realize how hot it’s getting; the short list of “detestable and appalling” traditions that might, to some readers, imply other racist traditions were neither detestable nor appalling; the honorable, “conscientious” men who are just too lost in the “moral thicket” they’ve built to find their way toward ending violent oppression against their fellow human beings.
At one point, Crespino discusses the famous Mockingbird scene in which Scout accidentally turns away a lynch mob by starting a conversation with one of its members. To his credit, he accurately calls it “an absurdity” that “mocked the gruesome record of southern lynch mobs.” But he also says that the scene “captured the spirit of the Brown [v. Board] era” and “reflected the politics of the late 1950s.” He even goes on, somewhat shockingly, to compare the fictional scene with the real-life trauma of the schoolhouse confrontations in which “black schoolchildren faced down white mobs” and required the protection of the National Guard in order to attend classes.
When Crespino examines Harper Lee’s sympathy for “the white South’s principled conservatives,” he does acknowledge their ultimate failure to stand on the right side of history. But he then excuses her by noting that when she was “completing a draft of ‘Watchman’ in late February 1957,” she “didn’t have the benefit of hindsight.”
It was not a lack of hindsight with which Lee was struggling—it was a lack of insight. After all, in 1956, James Baldwin had already figured out the truth behind
the hope—which was always unrealistic and is now all but smashed—that the white Southerner, with no coercion from the rest of the nation, will lift himself above his ancient, crippling bitterness and refuse to add to his already intolerable burden of blood-guiltiness. But this hope would seem to be absolutely dependent on a social and psychological stasis which simply does not exist. … There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.2
Crespino goes so far as to appropriate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., naming his final chapter “Letter from Maycomb Jail.”
The chapter opens with a 14-page history of Birmingham in 1963 and is bookended by a reference to the north Alabama premiere of the Mockingbird film and a three-sentence reference to Mockingbird by Dr. King himself. In between, Crespino focuses almost exclusively on the political environment in Birmingham that led to Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
The intended purpose of this and other historical sections is to contextualize the world in which Atticus Finch was conceived and received. And yet, with the exception of the aforementioned passages, there are scant references to African American resistance. There is virtually no mention of women throughout the book, excepting members of the Lee family. There is no searching exploration of the direct material benefits whites enjoyed as a result of the “detestable and appalling” traditions. We hear little about white integrationists, or, for that matter, the complicity and hypocrisy of the North to which Harper Lee was so sensitive.
Crespino then ends the story of Atticus Finch in the mid-1960s. He has little to say about the half-century since. He does not explore the controversial publication of Watchman in 2015. He does not analyze the very different cultural reception that book, and that Atticus, encountered. He does not speculate on why so much of white America has held on to their original hero and refused to engage with the more complex iteration.
It may be a fool’s errand to quibble with the parameters of the life story of a fictional character. But since the book clocks in at less than 200 pages before giving way to endnotes, it seems it could have sustained a more holistic exploration. Indeed, if Atticus Finch were a real person, it’s easy to imagine him finding comfort in this biography.
Maybe that’s the problem.