Two new books reflect on why 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' and Atticus Finch, matter so much

In 1880, a man named Amasa Coleman Lee was born in rural Alabama. In 1926, he and his wife, Frances Finch Lee, had a daughter, Nelle. (It was her maternal grandmother’s name spelled backwards.) Eventually, when she grew up, Nelle began work on a novel that was centered, in part, on a character based on Amasa Lee. For fictional purposes she renamed him Atticus Finch.

The book, which was published in 1960, was of course "To Kill a Mockingbird." It took 80 years to get there, but neither America nor its literature would ever be the same.

In his lucid, accomplished, eminently readable new book “Atticus Finch: The Biography” (Basic Books, 184 pp., ★★★½ out of four), Emory historian Joseph Crespino lays out the journey of those 80 years. The first half of the book is a fascinating biography of A.C. Lee, the second a description of how his daughter transmuted him into Atticus Finch – into America’s father.

Harper Lee’s father (Harper was her middle name) was a garrulous, bright young man, “ambitious and high-minded,” prominent in politics, journalism and law. His racial views were complex, neither radical nor retrograde. Early in his career, he defended a black father and son accused of murder, though they were judged guilty and hanged. Still, he saw himself as essentially a proponent of incremental change.

His fiery, farther-seeing daughter considered that little better than appeasement. (Amasa seems much closer to the pragmatic Atticus of "Go Set a Watchman" than the idealized one of "Mockingbird.")

Nevertheless, Crespino makes clear that A.C. Lee had two crucial traits that Atticus Finch would inherit: first, he was a wonderful, imaginative father, and second, while of his ugly time, possessed a profound instinct for basic decency.

“Atticus Finch,” a blend of Southern history, literary criticism and group biography, is probably the best book about Harper Lee to come out since her death in 2016. It is also, though, undeniably academic in tone and approach.

A more accessible new work by Tom Santopietro, “Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters” (St. Martin's Press, 238 pp., ★★★ out of four), illuminates the Lees’ legacy from a different, pop culture-driven angle.

Santopietro’s métier is film – he has written about "The Sound of Music" and Doris Day – and he glides quickly over Nelle Lee’s background in his rush to get on set. “Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters” (thank heavens for that last word) is primarily a book of cinematic history, filigreed here and there with the borrowed significance of “Mockingbird.”

But for readers who want to know about the film, it’s a success, absorbing and full of beguiling detail. The father of the actress (Mary Badham) who played Scout was a retired Air Force general who disliked movies. On the shooting script of her onscreen father, Gregory Peck, there are four words “scrawled in his distinctive hand: Fairness Courage Stubbornness Love.” How Atticus.

Birmingham theater owners “refused to show” the movie, Crespino writes; in the same month that Peck won an Academy Award for it, April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was composing his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

In other words, Lee’s book appeared at a time of overwhelming complexity, and managed at that vital moment to be many things at once: a masterpiece; a fantasy; a sally against racism; a tale of childhood. She herself called it – very beautifully – “a love story pure and simple.”

In different ways, these two books, particularly Crespino's, unknot the immense tangle of racial and personal and regional issues that Lee reflected and defined. They are with us still, obviously. As I write this, "To Kill a Mockingbird," 138 years after Amasa's birth, remains on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list week after week.


Charles Finch is the author of "The Woman in the Water."

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