Father Figure

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a chimera, created through the merging of multiple manuscripts. In writing the 1960 bestseller, Lee stitched together several of her short stories about childhood and brought back characters from her unpublished first novel, Go Set a Watchman. The rediscovery and controversial 2015 publication of Watchman led to a spike of interest in the reclusive author and her work. For readers curious even now, more than a year after her death, Emory University historian Joseph Crespino offers a volume of new and familiar scholarship. In Atticus Finch: The Biography (Basic, 272 pp., $27), Crespino starts with the story of the man on whom Lee modeled her most famous character: her father, Amasa Coleman Lee.

Like Atticus, A. C. was a widower, lawyer, and state legislator; unlike Atticus, A. C. was for 18 years a newspaper editor. Crespino digs into A. C. Lee’s hundreds of editorials, showing how his political and religious conservatism and his integrity and idealism—sometimes bordering on sanctimony—were reflected in the character his daughter invented. Crespino next turns to Harper Lee’s writerly beginnings and to the creation of Atticus in Watchman, his less cynical re-creation in Mockingbird, and the iconic version that appears in the 1962 film adaptation. Crespino doesn’t make much out of the moment in which A. C. Lee met Gregory Peck, the celluloid Atticus; we’re left to imagine how strange the encounter must have been for the 82-year-old.

Crespino uses the Lees’ writings to explain the moral and political evolution of Alabama on segregation. A. C. Lee, who died in 1962, was basically the sort of “white moderate” Martin Luther King Jr. criticized in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” But a year later, in Why We Can’t Wait, King praised the way Atticus Finch “disperses the mob with the force of his moral courage.” For the sake of that example of moral courage, we should be glad Harper Lee was so daunted by the success of Mockingbird that she never got around to finishing the third Atticus novel she was considering.

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