First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Joseph Crespino, Perseus Books, and Basic Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.
The name Atticus Finch was long synonymous with kindness and compassion, showing his children the importance of not judging a book by its cover. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Finch’s character pushes the limits of 1930s Alabama acceptance and tries to bring justice to the African American population, calling himself a ‘moderate Southerner’. However, those who sought out and read Lee’s second published novel, Go Set a Watchman, are jolted to see Atticus turned into a racist who strongly sides with his Caucasian brothers in putting those of colour in their place. Shock came from this revelation, but there is a story there; two, actually. Joseph Crespino seeks not only to explore the vastly different versions of the two Atticus characters in this piece, but also to give the reader a better understanding of Nelle ‘Harper’ Lee and how she fashioned Atticus out of her own father’s life. The attentive reader will see strong parallels between the elder Lee and Atticus, leaving this book with a better understanding of the metamorphosis made by the latter between the two novels, published over half a century apart.
Amasa Coleman ‘A.C.’ Lee was a genuinely affable man who married his sweetheart before the start of the Great War. With two of his children born in the years following his marriage, A.C. started a law practice and had one highly controversial case, where he defended an African American man accused of raping a white woman. With that came the call for lynchings, an event that brought all townsfolk out to watch, even as it disgusted A.C. The Lee family welcomed their third child, Nelle Harper, born significantly later than her next youngest sibling. Nelle would forever forge a close connection to her father, as Crespino elucidates throughout the text, when A.C. became a single involved parent soon thereafter. It was this relationship between A.C. and Nelle that created the strong connection seen in both of Harper Lee’s novels. A.C. left the practice of law and found pleasure in life running a weekly newspaper in Monroeville, in the heart of Alabama. He would present the news to the locals as he saw fit and provided his readers with a large stage on which to offer their grievances through Letters to the Editor. A.C. would also use this stage to compose editorials of his own, helping to shape the community with a well-rounded set of opinions. These opinions did vary from many of those around Alabama, but A.C. would not be deterred. While defending the rights of all, he did understand that there were differences between the races, though did not extol them as vehemently as some in Alabama or around the Southern states. However, as Nelle grew, she soon came to see that the community in which she was living had vastly different views from those of her father, which did force her to question much of what was going on. A.C. did his best to shape his youngest daughter’s ideas, but the world around them was also helpful in providing its own Southern Charm, particularly related to race relations. As A.C. and Nelle watched Alabama become more deeply divided, it turned them both away from the hope for equality and into a realm of realistic division. By the mid- to late-1950s, as Nelle prepared to leave Alabama for the bright lights of New York City, A.C. was firmly rooted in a divisive view of race relations. It was an acceptance of inequality or race differentiation. Crespino explores how A.C. joined groups committed to keeping whites in positions of superiority, but would not engage with KuKlux members, citing that violence was not the answer. Throughout the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, Alabama’s race clashes reached a fevered pitch, which surely influenced A.C. in his waning years. This would provide Nelle much fodder for her writing career, which started in an interesting manner, permitting one A.C. Lee to breathe life into the fictional Atticus Finch.
Crespino explores Nelle (hereafter called by her author’s moniker, Harper) and her introduction into the world of writing through the most generous of Christmas gifts. Close friends of hers offered to give her a stipend equivalent to one year’s wages to allow her to write without distraction. Lee used her perch in New York to explore some of the happenings back in Monroeville and penned Go Set a Watchman in short order, which depicted one Jean Louise Finch returning from the North to take in what had become of her children Alabama home. When Harper Lee had the novel sent in for consideration, many found the story and the characters drab or too basic. Rejection letters abounded, but Lee did not let that stop her. Soon there were other short stories, sometimes penned in a brief time, which helped flesh out her key characters. A youthful Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch appeared, somewhat precocious and yet always seeking answers from her knowledgeable father, Atticus. It was only when Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird that she had publishers rushing to put it to print. Crespino notes that these publishers, located in New York City, rushed the printing as it was a book that Northerners could enjoy, with its criticism of Southern treatment of the African American population. Readers who are familiar with the book will know that Lee portrayed Alabama as strongly segregated and deeply divided, with the Finch family almost an island unto themselves. Atticus sought not only to stand alone around so many with strong opinions, but wanted to teach his children the importance of taking a moment to look at all perspectives before making any judgement. When Lee had the book published in 1960, it was a shock to the country (and the world) that such behaviour could be going on in the South, though its reception was not entirely joyous. Crespino explores the cinematic depiction of the book as well, with Gregory Peck as its lead. Peck utilised his own opinions to shape the Atticus character as a hero to his children and a villain to his fellow citizens, though few could expect much else. Atticus Finch in this regard is surely the A.C. Lee that Harper knew as a child, though it only told part of the story.
Where things take an interesting turn throughout Crespino’s book is the exploration of Lee’s first novel, the forgotten Watchman. It was only in its publication that readers saw another side of Atticus Finch in his older age. Lee depicts Atticus as more racist and drawn towards the racial class system in America. Crespino argues that this Atticus, who likely alarms many readers in his gruffness, was the A.C. Lee of the mid- to late-50s, after leaving his editorial views behind. Atticus reflects more of the Alabama of the times in this novel, vastly different from the man who sought to defend an African American man accused of rape. While Northern audiences loved Mockingbird, Crespino argues that Harper Lee sought to publish Watchman, which was closer to her own personal views, as a primer for Northerners to see things from the perspective of Southern inhabitants, to offer a dose of the other side. This is likely why it was rejected at first and only published in 2015, even then as an unedited manuscript years after Harper Lee died. There is surely a strong Atticus parallel with the life of A.C. Lee found within its pages, but nowhere near as soft or warm-hearted. Without the ability to defend her position, many soured on Harper Lee as an author and could not understand why she would bastardise her beloved Atticus so much. It is the attentive reader of this biography that sees the metamorphosis over time, as A.C. Lee no longer tried to block out the Alabama influence that permeated his daily life. Perhaps Harper Lee simply sought to present her readers with a complete picture, though there was no bridge or middle-ground on which readers could accept the transition. Left with questions and outrage, many vilified the author from the grave. Atticus Finch, like all other men, was flesh and blood, influenced by his surroundings, as A.C. Lee tended to be. However, without the background understanding of how closely Atticus was to A.C. Lee, few readers will understand or want to hear the justifications.
Not only was this a refreshing look at the life of Amasa Coleman Lee, but also a sobering snapshot of Harper Lee and her creation of Atticus Finch. For decades, Finch was seen as the personification of the moderate Southerner, whose views were neither radical nor browbeating. However, with the release of Watchman in 2015, much of the world turned against Finch (and by extension, Harper Lee). Joseph Crespino breathes new life into this debate by writing of the parallels between the fictitious Finch and A.C. Lee, which serves to help the reader better understand the significant change. Crespino relies not only on scores of historical texts and past Harper Lee biographies, but archived interviews to provide the reader with the mindset that Harper Lee had when writing these two novels and to explore the life and times of her father. It is likely difficult to model a fictional character after someone in real life, particularly if the author is close to that person, as the nuances of their character must (for some readers) be adequately substantiated to accept anything but the most loving of depictions on the page. Harper Lee, in all her wisdom, was not able to properly explain the latter depiction of Atticus Finch or show the general public the parallels between him and her own father. Crespino pulls back the curtain to offer that detailed analysis and may, fingers crossed, provide many readers with a better explanation as to why things got so intense when comparing the two pieces. Crespino has opened my eyes to much related to the Lee family, the writing of the two novels, and the influence that Alabama politics had on the metamorphosis of A.C. Lee and Atticus Finch. I will certainly have to revisit both novels and see some of the explanations that are made throughout this biography, especially now that I am armed with new information. I can only hope to have a better understanding and create my own bridge between the novels to justify things, something that Harper Lee never did. One question still simmers in my mind: had Watchman been published in 1957, would the general reaction to the book in the Northern part of America been such that we might never have seen Mockingbird in its print or film versions? And a follow-up: had Mockingbird not been published, how might the understanding of Southern race relations been depicted to the world?
Kudos, Mr. Crespino, for making me think so very much about this and other topics of interest. I am eager to find some more of your work and understand the nuances of Southern race relations and the inside knowledge of key American personalities.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons