By Joseph Crespino
248 pp. Basic Books. $27.
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.
This book opens a window into “Mockingbird’s” scrubbed-up Alabama of memory, into the literary politics of the modern South, and into the argument that existed in Lee’s imagination when she arrived at 19 on the University of Alabama’s campus in 1945 and when she died in a Monroeville nursing home in 2016. Her student journalism seethes with outrage over Montgomery’s pack of political thugs, but it also reflects the signature neurosis of her class — that educated white Alabamians are looked down upon as ignorant rednecks because the state’s “good people” are unfairly demonized over the racial brutality that is only part of the Alabama story. What the world saw as a hideous carcinoma on Alabama’s face in the days of “massive resistance” was, in fact, only a wart on the public visage of respectable white segregationists struggling with an unfixable inheritance of white trash on the one side and a fractious black minority on the other.
Lee’s fictional snapshot of a strait-laced lawyer gave Alabama a civic mythology it could live with, but non-Southerners may not appreciate the role of the “Mockingbird” industry in the region’s endless literary wars. Georgia still basks in the imperial grandeur of “Gone With the Wind.” Mississippians lord it over their Bama cousins because “Absalom, Absalom!” put William Faulkner on a lonely pinnacle no other Southern writer can scale. But when “Mockingbird” won the Pulitzer and then swept the Oscars in 1963, Alabama had what its psyche needed most — an internationally accepted statement that we are better than the rest of America (not to mentions its journalists, historians and preachers) has been willing to admit.
Crespino is not timid about exposing the fact that “Mockingbird” approvingly dramatizes the class bigotry that still prevails in white Alabama. Its corporate and landowning oligarchs monopolize economic and political power, but the state’s ills are always laid at the feet of lower-class whites like Bob Ewell and his troubled daughter Mayella. Peck’s spotless, prejudice-free version of Atticus appeared in New York movie theaters a month after Wallace delivered his “Segregation Forever” inaugural address. Thus did “the id and superego of the descendants of the Confederacy enter together the mainstream of American political and cultural life.”
In villainizing rednecks, Lee was doing what her generation of educated Alabamians was forced to do in the 1960s: showing where she stood on racial violence while begging the world for some leniency. There’s a nice question here for literary critics. Were Lee and, for that matter, Birmingham-born Walker Percy unwilling to surrender the vestige of Alabama-ness that haunts their novels — the conviction that the Southern gentry’s antique, upper-class posture of respectability actually mattered in the face of their crimes, first against Native Americans and then against enslaved blacks?
Crespino’s answer as to Lee is an unequivocal yes, and he links Lee’s split vision to the lifelong game of hide-and-seek between Nelle Lee, the down-home fisherman, and Harper Lee, the literary expat who was happiest in Manhattan. Jean Louise Finch, the protagonist of “Go Set a Watchman,” speaks for the worldly Lee when she condones integration with a people her father disdains, saying, “Atticus, the time has come when we’ve got to do right.”
But Crespino demonstrates that “To Kill a Mockingbird,” while it is the superior storytelling book, wobbles morally in comparison to “Watchman.” Atticus’s pedantic reverence for the rule of law communicates to Scout and Jem a message that has misled generations of “honorable white Southerners.” Atticus shows them “how one could be in Maycomb without being of it.” Atticus may have convinced the children, but if Harper Lee really believed that, why did she keep the railroad tracks hot between Alabama and New York?
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