Atticus Finch: The Biography
Like the Christ child himself, Atticus Finch was born on Christmas.
It was 1956, and Nelle Harper Lee would not be heading home to Alabama for the holidays. She couldn’t get time off from her job as an airline reservationist, so she spent Christmas with her closest friends in New York, Michael and Joy Brown and their two boys. Nelle had shared with the Browns the short stories that she wrote in the little free time that she had—humorous, heartwarming tales of small town southern life that reminded Michael of his own childhood growing up in east Texas. He liked them so much that he recommended Nelle to his agents, Maurice Crain and Annie Laurie Williams, a husband-and-wife team who ran one of the most successful agencies in New York. Crain read Nelle’s stories and saw real promise in them. But he thought that she should write a novel, which would be easier to sell. It was good advice, but no simple thing to do, not with her airline job, which she needed to make ends meet. Around this same time, Michael experienced a windfall from a musical comedy special that he had sold. That’s when he and Joy had an idea. On Christmas morning, they put an envelope on the tree marked “Nelle.” Inside was a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
Stunned, Nelle responded with a litany of objections. Were they crazy? It was too much money. What if the children got sick? As the Browns batted down each one, it dawned on her that this wasn’t an act of generosity, it was an act of love. Emboldened by their “fearless optimism,” Lee was determined to honor the faith that her friends had shown in her.
She got to work immediately. In January, she started dropping by Crain and Williams’s office each week to hand over new pages. By the end of the month, she had written 150. In another month, she had a full manuscript with the title “Go Set a Watchman.”
It was the story of a struggling young writer in New York who returned to her small Alabama hometown to find that the town and her family had been transformed by racial crisis. The central conflict was between the young woman and her beloved father, a man she knew to be decent and principled but who had inexplicably fallen in with the racist reactionaries. The last name of the father she took from her own family, her mother’s maiden name, Finch. The first name she drew from Roman history, Titus Pomponius Atticus, the friend of Cicero, a “wise, learned and humane man,” she would later explain to a reporter.
On February 28, 1957, Crain sent the manuscript to Lois Cole, an editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons who was best known for having discovered Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind. Lee had “very real promise,” Cole thought, but the novel was thin. “[T]here is not very much story, or plot, or suspense,” she wrote, “and the last hundred pages do resolve into a series of debates, which are certainly sound and well-expressed, but still debates. It seems, to us, that people can be, and should be, instructed, but that they will take it better if it is all accomplished by a real story.” She asked Crain to send her Lee’s second novel if he failed to place this first one. She included with her letter an application for the New Campus Writing Fellowship, in case Lee wanted help with her next book.
Five days later, Crain sent “Watchman” to Evan Thomas at Harper & Brothers, pitching it as “an eye-opener for many northerners as to southern attitudes, and the reasons for them, in the segregation battle.” Thomas, a Princeton graduate and the son of the six-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas, had recently published Profiles in Courage by the young Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, which would win the Pulitzer Prize the following month. Lee was “a good writer… damned good,” Thomas told Crain over the phone, but the novel didn’t have enough story. He wished that Lee “wouldn’t put her heroine in trousers. Somehow having her wear pants just rubs me the wrong way.” Neither did he like how the character cursed her father. But Lee had “potential indeed,” and, like Cole, Thomas asked Crain to send him Lee’s next book if this one didn’t sell.
Crain kept after it, sending the book to Lynn Carrick at J. B. Lippincott on May 13. Meanwhile, since finishing the draft of “Watchman,” Nelle, intent on making the most of her year of artistic freedom, had started a new novel. It grew out of the childhood stories that she had initially shown Crain. The best of those, in Crain’s opinion, had been “Snow on the Mountain,” about a boy who takes out his frustration with the elderly neighborhood shrew by destroying her flowers. Another, “The Cat’s Meow,” Lee had revised in January and given back to Crain when she had passed along the first fifty pages of “Watchman.” By mid-May, Nelle had decided to incorporate these two stories into her new novel. Two weeks later Nelle gave Crain the first 111 pages of a manuscript that she had titled “The Long Goodbye.”
She kept writing, and in roughly another two weeks, on June 13, Crain sent Carrick a complete version of this new, second novel. “[T]his childhood stuff is wonderfully appealing,” Crain wrote. “Possibly this longer and more substantial book would make a better starter than the one you have. She says this could go on and on.” Crain advised Lee to keep writing and eventually she could drop out the duller stuff, holding the book to around 350 or 400 pages. Lee planned to break the novel off after the brother character entered high school, “leaving the four-year-younger sister to a lonely childhood.”
It seems that this second novel, which grew out of Lee’s short stories, is the one that would eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird. The book focused on the childhood and earlier lives of the characters that she had written about in “Watchman.” In July 1957, Nelle described to Joy and Michael Brown how frustrated she had become trying to merge the two books. It was Crain who explained to her that this was a fool’s errand, and that she should go ahead and finish the childhood novel. Then later she could write a bridge novel that would flow into “Watchman.” He showed her sections of a novel in progress by Bonner McMillion, another writer with whom he worked whose fiction was set in the small town South, and who, like Lee, had the ability to “create living characters” and to “recall childhood scenes and moods with complete clarity,” with “the same gentle underlying humor which adds charm to the telling.” Lee loved the passages from McMillion’s work. It hadn’t seemed feasible to her at first to divide the material into separate books and let the childhood novel stand on its own, but then she found herself doing exactly as Crain had said.
By the middle of June, the editors at Lippincott had both of Lee’s manuscripts. The one that Crain had first sent to Carrick under the title “Go Set a Watchman” would be listed in Lippincott’s records as “Atticus.” But the novel that Lippincott eventually signed to a contract on October 17, 1957, was untitled, and Carrick wasn’t the book’s editor. That task fell to Tay Hohoff, the firm’s only female vice president. It seems that the editors changed because the manuscript that Lippincott was interested in changed. Instead of Carrick editing “Watchman,” a political novel set in the midst of the segregation crisis, Hohoff was given the childhood novel that Lee continued to supplement with new pages throughout the summer. Amid the card files that Annie Laurie Williams kept is one with a header labeled “Go Set A Watchman.” It is neatly struck through in pencil, and above it is typed “To Kill A Mocking Bird.”
Two different manuscripts with two different fates. One found its way to a safety deposit box in Monroeville, Alabama, where it sat all but forgotten for over half a century before being discovered by Lee’s lawyer and published in 2015. The other, revised and reworked for another two years and published in 1960, became one of the most successful books in American publishing history. In some ways, it’s a familiar story. Many if not most successful novelists have a drawer in which an earlier, apprentice manuscript is tucked away. Yet Harper Lee’s novels are different. Conceived back-to-back in the first six months of 1957 but published fifty-five years apart, both became a kind of Rorschach test for the politics of race in the period that they were published. They are unusual, too, in their paradoxical treatment of one of the most beloved characters in all of American literature, the orienting figure of both novels, that touchstone of decency and goodness himself, Atticus Finch.
HIS BOOK TELLS Atticus’s story, from his origins in the life and example of Harper Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, to his creation and evolution in her two novels, his adaptation in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and his public reception during the critical years of the southern civil rights struggle. Harper Lee famously described To Kill a Mockingbird as “a love story pure and simple.” But with the discovery of Go Set a Watchman, we know that how she came to write that story, and to construct the character of Atticus, the source and the object of that love, was anything but simple. Thanks to Watchman, we know, too, that Harper Lee set out to write a novel not just about love, but about politics. To understand Atticus Finch, it is necessary to recover the political struggles that preoccupied her father, a lawyer, state legislator, and newspaper editor in Monroeville, Alabama, which were the same struggles that preoccupied Harper Lee herself.
A variety of new or previously unexamined sources make this possible. They include exclusive letters and other documents from the files of Harper Lee’s publisher; privately held letters, previously unavailable to scholars, written by Lee from Monroeville in the mid-and late 1950s, that shed light on her relationship with her father and developments in her hometown that influenced her fiction; and interviews with Harper Lee’s two oldest living nephews and oldest living niece, who offer fresh insights into the life of their grandfather and famous aunt alike. Most important perhaps are the hundreds of editorials written by A. C. Lee during his years as editor of the Monroe Journal, from 1929 to 1947, in which he commented on a remarkable range of state, national, and even international issues.
Previous biographers and journalists have almost completely ignored these editorials, which are crucial for a proper assessment of Harper Lee’s fiction. Indeed, while we have long understood that A. C., as he was called, was the inspiration for Atticus, what has been lost is that he was a man deeply engaged with the momentous events of his times. His precocious daughter absorbed his sense of civic responsibility and belief that the nation’s problems, not to mention the world’s, were also Monroeville’s. In his life and in his writings, A. C. Lee demonstrated a principled, conservative opposition to demagoguery and fascism, at home and abroad. A lifelong Democrat and loyal admirer of Franklin Roosevelt, he turned against the New Deal in the late 1930s and early 1940s as labor and civil rights politics moved to the fore of national Democratic Party politics. One consequence was a political rift between Lee and his spirited, nonconformist, politically unorthodox daughter. In the years immediately following World War II, when Harper Lee was an undergraduate, progressive candidates briefly found success in southern politics. Nelle produced her first published writings in this period: some short stories, but much of it political satire, including some aimed squarely at people like her father.
By the time Nelle sat down to write her novels in 1957, however, those days were long past. The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education set loose extremist forces across the Deep South. White southerners established new organizations to defend segregated schools, and they revived old ones, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which in Alabama enjoyed direct access to the state’s most powerful politicians, including the governor himself. Alabama’s leaders turned a blind eye to Klan violence against black protest, as well as to the intimidation and harassment of whites who didn’t toe the line of strict racial orthodoxy. Conservative white southerners such as A. C. Lee, who in an earlier era might have objected to the demagoguery and fear-mongering, fell silent.
Watchman was Harper Lee’s effort to make sense of her father’s conservatism amid the madness of massive resistance. Yet that first novel didn’t succeed, either as a work of fiction or as a defense of her father’s politics, and potential publishers recognized as much. It would be Mockingbird, with its more careful, selective, and allusive evocation of a principled, decent white southerner, that coincided with and provided cultural reinforcement for a quiet oppositional politics in the white community, one that defied the essential, foundational myth of the militant segregationists: the idea that the white South, united by blood, soil, and the tragic history of the Lost Cause, would resist racial integration to the bitter end. The puncturing of this myth marked the beginning of the end of the Jim Crow South.
That collapse owed most importantly and most fundamentally to the protest of black southerners themselves, and it would have happened regardless of whether Harper Lee ever published her novel. It was a fitting irony that Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of Mockingbird won the Academy Award the same month, April 1963, that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the quintessential statement of how well-meaning whites can often get in the way of genuine racial progress. Yet King himself would later recognize the “moral force” in Harper Lee’s novel, and in Atticus in particular.
During the heyday of massive resistance, when Harper Lee was struggling to write her first novel, she could not have dreamed how the character that she invented would become an essential symbol of empathy and tolerance in American public life. Fifty-seven years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Barack Obama, reflecting in his Farewell Address on the lingering divisions of race, reminded Americans of the advice that Atticus gave to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
It would have been impossible, too, for Harper Lee to have imagined in the late 1950s the changes that would come to her native South. That was when the militant segregationists were still in the driver’s seat, and the common bit of cynicism among even progressive white southerners was that the law can’t change people’s hearts. But stories can. And Harper Lee’s story did, in a way that’s hard to measure—aside from the astronomical book sales—but hard to deny.
Her North Star in those chaotic, confusing days was her father. However much she might have disagreed with him on the particulars, she knew her father to be a man of character and substance, someone who deserved a serious hearing. That was the idea with which she started her first novel, after the Browns gave her that extraordinary gift. In her imagination, she returned to her childhood, to when she had grown up at the foot of a fair and decent man in a tucked-away, forgotten corner of the country. That is where the story of Atticus Finch began for Harper Lee, and it is where it begins for us as well.
The View from the Square
Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.
The best way to understand A. C. Lee is to read what he wrote. There is plenty to choose from—more, in fact, than his famous daughter ever published. In the hundreds of editorials that he produced over nearly eighteen years as editor of the Monroe Journal, all the quaint fare one would expect from a rural weekly is on display: reports on prize hogs or gargantuan turnips, pictures of beauty queens, respectful obituaries, and long columns of short paragraphs noting who came or went visiting which relative or friend at Christmas or Easter. Yet so, too, is coverage and original commentary on an extraordinary range of issues and concerns. Under Lee’s leadership, the Journal didn’t merely report local happenings; it interpreted the world for its readers, only a small minority of whom had even a high school education.
A. C. Lee himself didn’t have that. Eighth grade was the highest he completed. His formal education, such as it was in a rural schoolhouse five miles outside the tiny panhandle town of Chipley, Florida, ended at age sixteen, when he passed an exam that qualified him to teach at another meager schoolhouse elsewhere in the county. Yet Lee was Lincolnesque in his reading habits and devotion to self-education. He was a thoroughgoing Anglophile, a trait that he would pass down to his daughters. A grandson would recall hearing the names of Addison and Steele, Macaulay, and Gladstone in family conversation long before he had any idea who they were. A. C. read mostly legal and political history and biography. Southern history was a particular favorite. He consumed every book ever written by Douglas Southall Freeman, the editor of the Richmond News Leader and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his multivolume biographies of Robert E. Lee and George Washington. A. C.’s copy of W. C. Oates’s History of the 15th Alabama was so worn that his daughter Alice would be on constant lookout for reprints. A. C.’s father, Cader A. Lee, had fought with the regiment for four years, battling Chamberlain’s men on the fateful second day at Gettysburg, taking the bloody road south, stacking arms at Appomattox with what remained of the army of northern Virginia.
Albert James Pickett’s History of Alabama was a cult classic in the Lee family. From it A. C. learned the history of the aboriginal tribes with their ancient burial mounds and fortifications, and of de Soto’s explorations. Pickett wrote about the colonial rule of the Spanish and the French, and the arrival of English settlers, who came to the area that would become Monroe County either by traveling north up the Alabama River from Mobile, or coming down the Federal Road, which the United States had established as a postal route through Creek territory. A. C. would have read of the brutal fighting between whites and Indians in 1813 and 1814 that culminated in the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Pickett wrote a dramatic account of the Battle of Burnt Corn, considered the first real battle of the Creek War, which took place just south of Monroe County. At the beginning of the war, in Pickett’s telling, “[e]verything foreboded the extermination of the Americans in Alabama, who were the most isolated and defenceless people imaginable.” In addition to reading about local history, A. C. enjoyed taking his grandchildren and out-of-town visitors to the historical markers in and around Monroe.
In the official accounts written by white settlers and their descendants, the Creek War made Alabama safe from “Indian uprisings.” Over the ensuing decades ambitious white men from the eastern states flocked to the southwestern frontier with their families and their slaves to take part in the cotton boom. The farms in Monroe were never as large or as prosperous as those just to the north in the Black Belt counties, named for the rich, black soil. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, there were some four hundred small farms spread throughout the county. As rail spurs penetrated deeper into the Alabama backwoods later in the 1800s, a market for timber developed and sawmills sprang up in the area.
A. C. Lee’s first real job was as a clerk at a sawmill. He learned how to keep books and made himself indispensable to a series of small businesses in rough-hewn hamlets across north Florida, south Alabama, and southwest Mississippi. It was easy to like A. C. Lee, or Coley as he was sometimes called. He had a pleasant, earnest face, a gentle disposition, and an even temper. It was at one of his bookkeeping jobs, in the village of Finchburg in Monroe County, Alabama, that he met the woman whom he would marry, Frances Finch, the daughter of the local postmaster and prominent farmer and landowner. They married in 1910 and their first child, Alice Finch Lee, was born the following year. They would add three more to their brood: Frances Louise Lee, born in 1916, Edwin Coleman Lee, born in 1920, and their youngest daughter, Nelle Harper Lee, six years the junior of her closest sibling.
A. C. settled his family in Monroeville in 1913, when he took a job managing a small branch railroad line recently built by two lawyers by the name of Barnett and Bugg. After a year in their office, A. C. read for the Alabama bar under the two men’s tutelage, which, in that day, for a person of Lee’s background and means, was a common way to receive a legal education. He was admitted to the bar in 1915, and shortly thereafter Barnett and Bugg became Barnett, Bugg, and Lee. The firm did well enough that in 1922 Lee decided to remodel and enlarge the home that he had bought on Alabama Avenue.
A. C. Lee as a young man.
If he was not at home or at work, chances are A. C. was at the Methodist church, where for decades he served as the lay representative to the annual Methodist conference, a position that his oldest daughter Alice would eventually take over. Among A. C.’s earliest memories was his mother, Theodosia Windham Lee, gathering up the children for the weekly three-and-a-half-mile trip to the community church. For seven of her eight children Theodosia chose conventional names—Fannie, Jessie, Mary, Stephen, Henry, George, James—but her second youngest child she named Amasa, the son of Abigail, the nephew of King David, derived from the Hebrew word meaning “burden bearer.” Throughout his life Amasa bore many burdens of family, church, and community. Perhaps it was one reason that, as an adult, it became A. C.’s habit each Sunday to sit by himself during church, apart from his family at the front of the sanctuary, his attention given over fully to the service.
He was a pillar of his community as well. A member of the board of directors for the county bank, he was elected to the Monroeville town council in the early 1920s, where he helped bring electrification to the town. A. C. Lee and Monroeville practically grew up together. When he settled his family there, the population was only around five hundred. The new courthouse, built in the Romanesque style with a Georgian influence, was less than a decade old, which was the case as well with the First National Bank. Before the construction of those two buildings, Monroeville had been little more than an outpost at the crossroads of the county’s only thoroughfares, which is why it had been made the county seat back in 1832. Monroeville was neither a river town—the Alabama River runs roughly eighteen miles to the west—nor a rail town—the main line of which would be laid eighteen miles to the southeast in Repton—which meant that while it was prominent locally, as the center of county business, the town would always be isolated from the wider world.
To counter that isolation was one reason A. C. Lee got into the newspaper business. Lee learned the trade from years of reading local papers along with the metropolitan dailies that circulated in south Alabama out of Montgomery, Mobile, and Birmingham. His journalistic interests were a matter of public service, but also political calculation. He won a seat in the state legislature in 1926. For an enterprising politician looking to have a voice in local and state affairs, gaining a stake in a newspaper was a savvy move. It was a good way to cultivate a constituency, promote pet bills or projects, or weigh in on party and state politics.
A. C. made a name for himself throughout Alabama, both as a politician and as an editor. In Montgomery, he was well-known as one of the legislature’s most prominent fiscal conservatives. In 1932, he took the lead in opposing Governor B. M. Miller’s proposed constitutional amendment allowing for a state income tax. When it became clear that the governor had the votes he needed to pass the measure, Lee maneuvered to limit the size of the tax. His signature achievement came three years later with the passage of a bill that required counties to pay off existing debts and operate solely on a cash basis. The Anniston Star called it “one of the most attractive measures” of that year’s legislative session. There was some talk even of A. C. Lee running for governor, although it never came to pass.
As a newspaper editor, Lee was a member of a tight fraternity. Editors in Alabama read each other’s columns and commonly debated public issues. A. C. wasn’t shy about handing out plaudits or calling out colleagues when he disagreed with them, and he could be prickly. A measure of his ambition and standing was the frequency with which he quarreled with prominent editors of Alabama’s major dailies, particularly Grover C. Hall, the Pulitzer Prize–winning editor of the Montgomery Advertiser. Hall and Lee kept a running argument in their respective newspapers in 1933 and 1934, debating Governor Miller’s income tax proposal and other matters. Hall thought Lee had not been sufficiently forthcoming about the size of the state debt that had prompted Governor Miller to pursue an income tax. Lee chastised Hall for addressing the debt only by increasing revenues rather than reducing expenses. Things got heated. Speculating on why Hall so frequently sided with the governor against the legislature, Lee wrote, “Oh yes, it was the Governor and not the Legislature who appointed the Advertiser editor to a lucrative position recently.” During another wrangle, Hall described Lee as “a smirking opportunist” who “regards all political journalism of a ‘low order’ which is not practiced in behalf of his side.” Lee could only shake his head at Hall’s “resort to the puerile practice of calling us names.”
Prominent though he was, if Lee had personal ambitions for wider office or acclaim, he kept them well hidden. The overarching theme of both his politics and his editorship was of an unstinting propriety bordering at times on the sanctimonious. He took seriously his role as servant of the public good, both as a representative in the legislature and as agent and operator of a free press. On display year after year on the Journal’s editorial page, in Lee’s earnest, labored prose, are many of the attributes commonly associated with the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird: