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How Reconsidering Atticus Finch Makes Us Reconsider America

In his new book, historian Joseph Crespino offers lessons drawn from Harper Lee's ambivalent treatment of this iconic character.
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

For more than half a century, Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, stood as one of the most celebrated characters of American literature. When Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, the father of the precocious Scout seemed to step from the pages of Lee's book, an embodiment of moral integrity in the face of inveterate racism. ("The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box," he says.) Even with the criticism the novel has otherwise received—for its cavalier use of the N-word, for its paper-thin development of its black characters—for a long time, the character of Atticus seemed largely protected from the corrosions of time and moral reappraisal.

That was, of course, before 2015. That year, Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman was published to ferocious controversy. The book had apparently been an early draft of Mockingbird, but, by some accounts, Lee never even wanted the book to be released. (Lee, who died in 2016, was in poor health as the novel went to press, which made some critics question whether she had been legally competent to consent to publishing.) But something else also upset readers: In Watchman, Atticus is no longer an avatar of righteousness; he's a racist who says things like, "The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people." For many readers, this was a punishing blow to the legacy of our beloved Atticus.

In his illuminating new book, Atticus Finch: The Biography, Joseph Crespino, a professor of history at Emory University, sheds light on the seeming contradictions between the two Atticuses by telling the story of the man the character is based on: Lee's father, Amasa Coleman "A.C." Lee. Drawing on a wide variety of archival sources—interviews with Lee's relatives, personal letters, newspaper clippings—Crespino shows how Lee's portrayals of Atticus reflect how the novelist struggled to find a footing between a reverent love for and critical distance from her father. (While apparently principled by the standards of his day, A.C. was in some ways even worse than the sort of white moderate whom Martin Luther King Jr. famously warned about in his 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail.")

Crespino's book arrives at a time when parts of the American South are seeing their own racial reckoning, and when right-wing leaders are claiming spurious Atticus comparisons. Crespino spoke with Pacific Standard about the lessons that American readers in 2018 can draw from Atticus—the character as well as his real-life prototype.


Why did you decide to write about a character from To Kill a Mockingbird—a novel that, in various ways, has already been dissected over and over again?

I'm fascinated by the fact that this book, which came out in 1960 and was made into a movie in 1962, has played such an enduring role in American political culture, that it's become a kind of primer for young students on racial morality. It's one of the first quote-unquote adult books we teach to children. But despite the book's popularity, it was hard to write about it—and Atticus—because there was only the one book. Lee said little about it, so we had little to go on.

That changed in the summer of 2015, when Go Set a Watchman, which Lee wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird, was published and portrayed a different Atticus. A great many people who'd named their children after this character were up in arms about what to do about the fact that the Atticus of this book is a racist reactionary—the exact kind you might think that a 70-year-old arthritic white man in Alabama would've been in the early years of the civil rights movement. So, that set me off to think more about the evolution of Atticus, and the first thing I did was learn more about Lee's father, A.C. Lee. One of the few things she said on the record in the '60s, when she was still talking publicly, was that her father was the inspiration for Atticus. As a result, I ended up writing this kind of odd book, which is a biography of a fictional character.

Did your historical exploration reveal anything especially interesting?

Absolutely. Audiences knew that, like Atticus, Lee's father was a small town-lawyer and a state legislator. But unlike Atticus, he was also the co-owner and editor of The Monroe Journal, a small newspaper in Monroeville, Alabama. I looked at the newspapers, and they were a gold mine—because not only did A.C. Lee have an editorial page, he had an active and ambitious editorial page. He wrote about state politics, the evolution of the New Deal, the rise of fascism in Europe in the '30s, the need for American intervention. He covered a remarkable array of things, bringing the world to his small-town readers in southwest Alabama. For the first third of the book, I recreate the political worldview of A.C. Lee, and by the middle of the book, I begin to trace how father and daughter began to diverge politically.

Explain this parting of ways between father and daughter.

I found new pieces of Lee's writing from when she was a student at the University of Alabama beginning in the mid-'40s, and when you put them alongside the writing her father was doing at that time, you see that they were talking about the same things, such as changes to Alabama's state constitution that would've denied registration to black Americans. You begin to recreate the arguments that were probably had around the Lee dinner table at this time when she's coming of age and her father is in his 60s. It's almost a preview of the fictional arguments the adult Jean Louise Finch [a.k.a. Scout] has with Atticus in Go Set a Watchman. You detect how ambivalent Lee was about her father and his conservative political traditions and positions.

When I was growing up in South Carolina, I'd often encounter people who were wildly precious about Southern history—who were acolytes of the whole notion of "heritage not hate." So it's encouraging to me, now, to see so many people—students in particular—so rigorously scrutinizing this history. How do you hope your book might affect the conversations we're having about the South's scrubbed-up past?

Atticus is the quintessential emblem of the "good white Southerner," of "moral white America." What I hope that my book will do—by providing the historical context for understanding what Lee was battling with and what she was trying to do with the character of Atticus—is help us be more well-informed about the political struggles that shaped not only her, but also the South and the nation more broadly. Whatever you may think of To Kill a Mockingbird as a piece of fiction, I think that understanding Atticus and critically engaging with how we've long been taught certain romanticized notions of racial morality are important for all of us.

Lee wrote her two novels in the midst of the massive resistance era. These were the days of Southern politics when you saw the rise of a right-wing, militant segregationist movement, when you had politicians who only a few years earlier had been dismissed as cranks, as nobodies, as jokes being elected to office—look at Ross Barnett in Mississippi or Lester Maddox in Georgia. That's the period Lee was writing in. And she was trying to make sense of the fact that what she admired as the principled conservatism of her father was being overrun by—but also, crucially, was not standing up to—right-wing reactionaries across many states in the South.

You can hear echoes of that sort of intra-party divide today.

It's very analogous to the current political climate, when you think about the struggles going on on the right side of the political spectrum—about how conservatives and reactionaries within the Republican Party are fighting for the soul of the party. I'd argue that [current GOP politics] makes the history of Atticus resonant today in a way it might not have been even three or four years ago.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.