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Allen Boyer: “Atticus Finch: The Biography”

Joseph Crespino. Photo courtesy of Allen Boyer.

In “Atticus Finch: The Biography,” Joseph Crespino has wrapped together three different books. One is the life story of Amasa Coleman “A. C.” Lee, the Alabama lawyer and newspaperman who inspired his daughter to write “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The second is a history of how Harper Lee created the character of Atticus Finch – almost, but not entirely, in her father’s image. The third is the Hollywood version, recounting how director Alan Pakula and leading man Gregory Peck framed in celluloid the image of Southern literature’s most decent lawyer and best-loved, most indulgent father.
A.C. Lee edited the Monroe Journal, a weekly paper in southern Alabama, from 1929 to 1947. His wife Frances was often absent, under psychiatric care; he reared a son and two daughters. He was an earnest editor, conscious of his role as the thoughtful voice of a conservative small town. He supported states’ rights, but never trumpeted white superiority; he praised the New Deal but denounced labor unions. He customarily wore a three-piece suit.
Harper Lee began her first novel, “Go Set A Watchman,” in 1957, while her father was recovering from his first heart attack. Against the background of civil rights agitation, Atticus Finch appeared as a compromised figure, one of the white civic leaders orchestrating massive resistance. An editor’s questions pushed Harper Lee to dig down to the core of her story – to explain how a progressive young woman could love so deeply a father with whom she was politically at odds.
Harper Lee saw Atticus Finch as a Southerner of his generation, someone who had to defeat his own prejudices when called on to defend a black man charged with raping a white woman. Harper Lee wanted Spencer Tracy to star (and Bing Crosby put in a bid for the part); Gregory Peck, who read deeply about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, was finally cast. Peck played a quiet, crucial role in making Atticus consistently noble. Some trappings remained, Crespino writes: “the tortoise-shell glasses, the three-piece suit, the watch fob, the southern accent, although even that was pretty erratic in Peck’s performance. What emerged was the handsome, dignified, blandly white face of mid-twentieth-century American liberalism.”
Harper Lee and Gregory Peck during the filming of To Kill A Mockingbird. Photo courtesy of Allen Boyer.

Crespino reconstructs forty years of Alabama politics – on every level, from New Deal agriculture-and-industry controversies to the bitter infighting within the Lee family’s Methodist church. He balances Harper Lee’s vision of the South, in the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which premiered on Christmas Day 1962, with the defiant rhetoric of George Wallace’s inaugural address in January 1963. He suggests that Harper Lee was enmired and thwarted by the politics of the new era.
“The ‘social pattern’ in the Jim Crow small towns that so fascinated Harper Lee was predicated on the ‘tribal instinct’ of the white South. One did not exist without the other. . . . Harper Lee could no longer abide the tribalism of white southerners. She was unable to reconcile her love of small town southern life – and of the values and principles of her father that grew out of it – with the commitment to racial hierarchy that defined both her hometown and her father.”
Harper Lee described her great novel as “a love story, plain and simple.” The politics of her era were too complicated, perhaps. The affections of her characters were not.

Allen Boyer, Book Editor for HottyToddy.com, is a native of Oxford. He lives and writes on Staten Island.

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