Interpreting the Ambivalent, Conflicted Harper Lee
Having just completed my read of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I was not surprised to learn of the similarities between her fictionalized Atticus Finch father-figure (in Watchman and in the later-published but earlier-set To Kill a Mockingbird) and her real-life father, newspaperman A.C. Lee (see the AP’s Jay Reeves’ report in the Christian Science Monitor).
In Watchman, Lee’s massive polemics against father-figure Atticus felt like angry, youthful rebellion against her real father, A. C., who as noted was part racist Watchman-Atticus and part honorable Mockingbird-Atticus.
In the AP report, A. C. Lee, editor and owner of their hometown paper, The Monroe Journal, from 1929 to 1949, did in fact support segregation, was nostalgic for the vanquished Confederacy, and was against proposed (failed) federal legislation against lynching. Still, he editorialized against lynching and displayed front page stories on its horrors. He also published positive stories on the local black community, unusual for deep South white newspapers.
It appears Mockingbird, having been written second, may reflect Harper Lee’s emotional reconciliation with her racist but otherwise honorable father, as perhaps evidenced in Watchman’s conclusion and made right in her much-loved To Kill a Mockingbird.
A daughter’s dilemma in any era.
Taken together, Lee’s two novels appear to express her own highly charged, mixed feelings about her father—as well as her disgust with the South’s racist Jim Crow ties to the past and its resistance to Civil Rights.
For me, I was left with my own disturbing sense of ambivalence about Atticus, the character I thought I knew and admired from Mockingbird.
If only we could make right our disappointments with a re-write in real life.
What’s your take on Lee, on rectifying disappointment? Can art help heal the wounds of the past?
Note: Like Harper Lee, my Southern novel, The Lies That Bind, confronts racism, sexism and class distinctions in antebellum Mississippi.