“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.” Atticus Finch as penned by Harper Lee
“Art isn’t supposed to answer questions, it’s supposed to ask them.” David Fincher
One of the most iconic of American figures, Atticus Finch, was created out of the imagination and life experiences of Harper Lee. A fictional Alabamian revered around the world whose apparition was cut from the whole cloth of Lee’s father. Atticus was almost immediately proclaimed a saint, but perhaps it is time to return to the accepting there is but one lone Alabamian who can be forwarded for admiration on a worldwide stage, Helen Keller. All the rest seem to have chinks in their armor somewhere to preclude sainthood, or even the moniker of gentleman in most quarters. Much is hidden from our view from Atticus Finch’s front porch in Depression Maycomb County, Alabama, and in the past decade or so much has been uncovered about what that view from the porch was really like and what was going on in the Southern lawyer’s head, and that of his originator’s and her father’s heads.
The American South, especially in Alabama and Mississippi, is one of contradictions: gentle respect for tradition, violence, repression, a societal DNA of slavery, and a crystalline class structure. Within this structure, the bottom is occupied by blacks (though Latinos in recent years have squeezed into that rung), lower manual labor whites, and the genteel upper class whites, with business split between a white culture and black culture served by their own. These have proven resistant to progressive thinking until recently. At least ‘Bama has been able to integrate its football team to “positive” results, though we might need to linger on that topic as part of Atticus’ visions from the porch, and later parlor when he moved inside after WWII to watch televised games on Saturday in an air conditioned room. You may be intrigued enough to venture into the links at the bottom to explore the nature of segregating “Bama football teams and how Bear Bryant dealt with the South’s racist approach to athletics. Note the game with the University of Southern California in 1970 as a wonderful example. Today’s team is two thirds African/American in composition and ranked at the top of the nation.
Harper Lee loved her father, who was a self-made man, a lawyer, legislator and owner of a newspaper, living in a small Alabama town in the “era of genteel white supremacists”. Her father was part of that genteel class, though his morality was more nuanced. His name was Amasa Coleman Lee- A.C. to the town, with the two initials indicative of that quaint endearing Southern nickname practice. As a lawyer, he defended a black man accused of rape, and lost. After the man was convicted, hanged and mutilate, he did not practice criminal law again. But, he once chased an integrationist preacher out of the Monroeville Methodist Church to demonstrate where his social racial perspectives lay. Initially a New Deal Democrat, he evolved into a Dixiecrat honoring Confederate veterans and their cause, supporting the prosecution of the Scottsboro Boys—nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women—and defending the poll tax. He praised law-enforcement officers who protected black prisoners from lynchings, but opposed a federal anti-lynching law, writing that it “violates the fundamental idea of states rights and is aimed as a form of punishment upon the southern people.”
While he certainly wouldn’t have liked the outright racism of George Wallace, A.C. certainly didn’t want to change the system that much. Lee herself knew this and was ever the spokesperson for the genteel South, much as she was pushing for its evolution towards progressive thinking. In college in the journalist role she pursued there she was an outlier in taking on the segregationist policies of the school and state. When she wrote about her south in the post war, living in New York and continuing the friendship began in childhood with her next door neighbor, Truman Capote, it was semi-autobiographical. The viewpoint we, the reader, enjoy from the novel is that of a young girl, Scout. She and her friends and acquaintances offer their story to us, illuminating the worlds of Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson, Boo Radley and Calpurnia, the family maid through her eyes. In “Atticus Finch: The Biography” (Basic Books), published this year, Joseph Crespino, a historian at Emory University, argues, convincingly, that Lee’s fiction was an attempt “to work out her differences with her father.”
She claimed the book was pure and simple a love story between a father and his daughter. You also see within its pages her coming of age and loss of innocence. Her father exudes and values of courage, respect, honor and integrity. He believes that justice, as an ideology, can be supported in a society with universal application if only done by a sole exponent. Because justice, racial justice, will not be served, Scout is forced to accept this harsh reality. She is the protagonist, who is changed, while Atticus is the rock of wisdom throughout, accepting the good in all people no matter their values.
Shortly after the book came out, was acclaimed and Lee won the Pulitzer Prize, Peck earned his Oscar for portraying Atticus Finch in one of the iconic roles of any actor’s lifetime. Lee’s father had recently passed away from a heart attack and Lee gave his pocket watch to Peck, which he wore in the film. Lee was taken aback when she saw Peck in his three-piece suit the first time as he so reminded her of her father. The apogee of Atticus Finch occurred just at about time those White Supremacists were murdering Civil Rights workers, stopping the integration of educational institutions, burning churches and MLK writing his letter from the Birmingham, Alabama jail. In the year that Gregory Peck won his Oscar, George Wallace stood in the doorway barring blacks for entering the University of Alabama.
In the meantime, the book has been translated into more than forty languages and sold more than thirty million copies. Since Lee’s death in 2016, the estate oversees the interests of the book and assiduously protects its reputation and Atticus Fitch’s aura. Shortly before Lee’s death, Tonja Carter, a member of the estate group established by Harper Lee to oversea the book’s legacy after her death, pushed for the publishing of the rejected first draft of the book. Lee had finished this first version in the late 1950s and called it “Go Set A Watchman”. In the 50s, Lee found no joy in presenting it to many publishing houses. Only when she brought it to J.B. Lippincott & Co, where an editor, Tay Hohoff, saw potential in the structure of the writer’s work, did she find a path to publishing it. But, the themes and characters were unworkable, unsellable. The protagonists was openly bigoted, the characters sad and despondent about the South they inhabit. Scout is a young adult and fully deprived of her innocence at the beginning of the story, with the book dragging all its readers through this leadened world. Hohoff spent the next two years working with, perhaps you could say co-writing, Lee as the amended version was completed to become that iconic classic. Hohoff was the figure who opened the door of history for the novel.
In the several years since Go Set A Watchman resurfaced, much has been discussed about race in America, as this coincided with our first black president, premature claims of a post-racial America and then Charlottesville. Concurrent to the decision to publish Watchman, Scott Rudin, a New York producer, was securing the rights from Lee to write a version of the book for the theater. Rudin, a longtime friend and collaborator with Aaron Sorkin, had Sorkin in mind from the beginning to write the play. Only three weeks before Lee died, she green-lighted Sorkin’s handling of the project and Sorkin took nearly three years to adopt the novel into a play.
This is something he knew was likely impossible, taking on this iconic legend of a story. But he felt it was relevant today and he knew he wanted Jeff Daniels for Atticus. To quote Sorkin (and also relate it to Daniels’ answer to Sorkin when offered the role), “It would be like entering a head-to-head competition with Tom Brady in which points were awarded based on passing efficiency and handsomeness. It wouldn’t be a wise thing to do. Without hesitation, I said yes.”
Sorkin’s first draft was a labor of difficulty. He sent it to Rudin who later called to arrange a meeting to discuss the draft. Typically they would hash out thoughts over three or four full days. At this meeting, though, one of only forty-five minutes, Rudin said only two things: Forget what you’ve just sent me. We’ve got to get to the trial earlier…and “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He has to become Atticus by the end.”
“Well … duh”, said, Sorkin. “That’s Freshman Playwriting. First semester, first week. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and be changed by it. And one more thing: A protagonist has to have a flaw. How did Harper Lee get away with creating a flawless protagonist who’s the same person at the end of the book as he is at the beginning? Simple. In the book, Atticus isn’t the protagonist — Scout is.”
Sorkin continued in his assessment of Atticus the idealist, “He believes that Bob Ewell should be understood as a man who lost his job. He believes Mrs. Dubose should be understood as a woman who recently stopped taking her medication and lives in physical pain. He believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?”
“In the play, this set of beliefs would be challenged,” concludes Sorkin. Welcome to 2018
How is it today on Atticus Finch’s porch in Maycomb County? What has transpired. We have changed, not the book. What has changed?
After the passage of Civil Rights legislation in Washington, D.C. in 1964, Jim Crow laws were outlawed. During the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, a Canadian named Paul Saltzman came to Alabama as a volunteer worker with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He spent ten days in jail with other civil rights workers, and was chased by a trio of Klansmen–one of whom, the son of Byron De La Beckwith, the convicted murderer of activist Medgar Evers, punched Saltzman in the head. At that time, some of the great institutions of America: the Boy Scouts, the Girl Guides, the YMCA, the Howard Johnson, even washrooms and drinking fountains, were still segregated.
In 2008, Saltzman, now a documentary film maker, returned to Alabama to make a film. He met Morgan Freeman and the idea was hatched to film an integrated prom in the tiny town of Charleston, Mississippi. Morgan Freeman returned to Mississippi for good in 1991- because he feels “it is the safest place in America” for him. Yet, the local high school, integrated since the Civil Rights days, still held separate black and white proms as of 2007. (note: Morgan Freeman has alleged issues of his own from #Metoo and he has spoken to this) Freeman had offered to fund the prom in 1998 on the condition that it be integrated, but his offer was not taken up by the School Board at that time. In 2008, with new exposure and opportunity, the Board accepted Freeman’s return invitation to fund it when Saltzman and his family moved to Charleston for four months to film Prom Night in Mississippi.
Was it a speed bump or a speed lane for change? Though the South is moving forward, will it ever reach a place where the Atticus Finch of the future will see his neighbors’ black children running around in his front yard, playing with his grandchildren and hugging each other unabashedly, free from glares from Maycomb County’s other inhabitants’ racists thoughts, or comments? Would those older grandchildren date the black neighbors’ kids, possibly leading to marriage. Maybe we could see even a gay, interracial marriage. Hope for the future lies in that future new book, one where the black characters are not always victims without hope and support, but one where justice is finally met out fairly and consistent with the rule of law and decency for all citizens.…and a society that would fully embrace it and mirror it in the non-fiction reality of the world.
Other excerpts and links about Lee to peruse:
Santopietro shrewdly refers to the novel as “the right book in the right place at the right time” to resonate with a growing civil rights movement, and in later chapters relates its theme to recent racially charged incidents, including the violence that convulsed Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.
Review of Why To Kill A Mockingbird Matters :“The title is misleading. I expected this text to offer a complex and sustained argument about the merits of the novel itself. Instead, much of the book is given over to a biography of Nelle Harper Lee and an extremely detailed history of the making of the 1962 movie. Some light literary analysis is thrown in for good measure. Never does this book take chances or make a persuasive argument for why To Kill a Mockingbird matters to anyone but white people who inexplicably still do not understand the ills of racism, and seemingly need this book to show them the light … Santopietro has certainly done his homework, and he applies the rigor of his knowledge admirably … Most of Santopietro’s work is given over to that movie — so much so that I began to wonder if this book was intended to be a cultural history of the adaptation alone… but the author fails to explain how it supports his argument that To Kill a Mockingbird matters… On top of that, the book’s structure is strange. The groundwork for Why ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Matters is astute, but the intellectual analyses are not, and the book suffers for it.” Roxanne Gay of NYTimes