The publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 forever changed how we think about perhaps the most famous fictional character in all of American culture. Once seen as a paragon of decency for defending a black man wrongly accused of rape in the Jim Crow South, the heroic Atticus Finch was suddenly reduced to a small-town racist. How are we to understand this transformation?
In Atticus Finch, the acclaimed historian Joseph Crespino draws on exclusive sources to reveal how Harper Lee’s father provided the central inspiration for each of her two very different novels. A lawyer, state legislator, and newspaperman, Amasa Coleman Lee was a principled opponent of mob rule who for nearly two decades brought the world to his corner of Alabama through his column in the Monroe Journal, where he voiced approval of President Franklin Roosevelt and fears of Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan. But A. C. Lee was no progressive; on the contrary, he was a quintessential white moderate, the type of southerner Martin Luther King, Jr., famously criticized in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” for their refusal to stand for racial justice.
Harper Lee was her father’s daughter, headstrong and passionate about politics. As Crespino shows, she created the Atticus of Watchman out of the ambivalence she felt toward white southerners like him for their complicity in Jim Crow. But when a militant segregationist movement arose in the late 1950s that mocked his values, she revised the character in To Kill a Mockingbird to defend her father and to attempt to remind the South of its best traditions.
A story of family and literature amid the great upheavals of the twentieth century, Atticus Finch is essential to understanding Harper Lee, her novels, and her times.
Joseph Crespino is the Jimmy Carter Professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of In Search of Another Country, winner of the 2008 Lillian Smith Book Award from the Southern Regional Council, and Strom Thurmond's America. He lives in Decatur, Georgia.