Atticus Finch

by Nigel Hamilton


NigelHamiltonConfession: I may be the last person reading in the United States who hasn’t read Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Oh, I saw the film, starring Gregory Peck. And in days gone by I taught a history class that featured Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – which he famously called a “non-fiction novel” – as a landmark text in the development of biography. Harper Lee had acted as Capote’s assistant and scout while he researched his chronicle of a mass murder. But Lee’s novel? No.

Once I moved to the U.S. permanently in 2000 I bought a copy, meaning to read it. The matter of race – which occupied a far lower place in British culture wars than social snobbery, immigration and gender issues – was here a dominant, on-going discourse in the new century. I had undertaken to write a biography of Bill Clinton, the outgoing – in both senses of the word – president, and I went multiple times to Arkansas, in the South, to research his Southern background: in Hope, Hot Springs, and Little Rock. That experience was itself so shocking for a transplanted Brit that I somehow never got round to reading Lee’s novel.

 And now she is dead.

In tribute to Lee’s contribution to modern American literature The New York Times has not only published an extended obituary, but reprinted its original July 13, 1960, review of the novel.[1] And a new “appraisal” by its lead book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani.[2]

Now, it is true that I do not like Ms. Kakutani, who once labeled me an “egregious Brit” for daring to write about Bill Clinton’s private life, as a serious biographer. To my mind she has zero understanding of the aesthetics of biography as a genre, and suffers the same problem as Janet Malcolm over issues of privacy and the misuse of copyright.

Nevertheless Ms. Kakutani is a very fine reviewer of fiction, whose constantly mutating aesthetics and changing fortunes she does appreciate. Her “appraisal” of Harper Lee is beautifully written – and intriguing from a biographical perspective. For in 2015 it was announced that Lee – who was something of a recluse, à la Miss Havisham – had, after all, written another novel: Go Set a Watchman. Its first printing in the U.S. was 2 million copies, and it leaped on publication to the top of the bestseller lists.

The new novel, however, turned out to be an old one: in fact the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. The publisher, Lippincott, had rejected it, but had paid her a small advance to rewrite it with the help of one of their editors – which, after a long delay, during which she helped Truman Capote research his book, she did: to world-wide applause. Fifty-five years later, in 2015, Lee’s lawyer had then discovered the manuscript of the first version, while rummaging through “Miss Havisham’s” papers.

Should a first draft be published, people asked, if its quality was manifestly inferior to Lee’s later one? Was Harper Lee – living in an Old Folks’ Home – sufficiently compos mentis to authorize its publication? Was it all a case of publisher’s greed?

Ms. Kakutani’s new appraisal, however, focuses on the far greater issue: namely the revelation, in Go Set a Watchman, that the narrator Scout’s revered father, Atticus Finch – staunch defender of a wrongly-accused black man, on trial for rape, in Maycomb, Alabama – had actually been a segregationist and a bigot himself!

Literary critics will doubtless mull over the difference between the two novels, or rather differing versions of the same fictional story. They will, for example, take note of the greater maturity and creative fictional craft in Lee’s writing by the time she published To Kill a Mockingbird. But Ms. Kakutani, to her credit, draws attention to the biographical and historical trajectory.

“[S]omewhere along the along the way, Harper Lee’s approach toward her material – and the Atticus figure, in particular, changed,” Ms. Kakutani notes. “The differences between the two books also underscore the effect that time has on how stories are told – and read.” Mockingbird had “allowed readers in the 1960s to congratulate themselves on how far race relations had progressed,” but Go Set a Watchman, “in contrast, was both set in the 1950s and written then,” she pointed out,[3] “and it underscored just how horrific race relations and social justice were.” Ms. Kakutani was therefore moved to applaud the publication of the earlier version. “In such respects, Ms. Lee has given us, in her two published novels, documents that allow us to measure how times and attitudes about race have changed, and – given continuing injustices today – how terribly far we have yet to go.”[4]

René Wellek and Austin Warren would be appalled to read this, were they still alive! In their Theory of Literature the two mastercritics memorably damned – in a chapter they called “Literature and Biography” – biography. Biography was, they claimed, no more than the leavings of literary study, and had nothing to offer “critical evaluation” in the academy. “No biographical evidence can change or influence critical evaluation,” they stated.[5]

How obtuse! How purist! How reflective of the time when they were first writing (the early 1940s)!

No, it is clear today that biographers and historians are essential to the study and critical evaluation of literary works. Ms. Kakutani’s “somewhere along the way” is the key – and it will be fascinating to see, in the coming years, how Ms. Kakutani’s fine tribute will encourage biographers to retell Harper Lee’s true story, not only as a reflection of her own literary trajectory, but that of America, and its readers – including, eventually, me!

Nigel Hamilton
Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston

[1] William Grimes, “Nelle Harper Lee Dies at 89; Wrote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” New York Times, February 20, 2016, and Hebert Mitgang, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, July 13, 1960.

[2] Michiko Kakutani, “The Loss of Innocence, First as Children, Then Again as Adults,” ” New York Times, February 20, 2016.

[3] My italics

[4] Kakutani, “The Loss of Innocence,” loc. cit.

[5] René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, Third Edition, (1977, 80).

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