Atticus Finch, the character from “To Kill A Mockingbird,” has influenced and inspired lawyers since the novel’s release in 1960. In this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast from the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting, host Rocky Dhir talks to Joseph Crespino about his book, “Atticus Finch: The Biography,” and the time period that inspired it. They discuss Harper Lee’s background, her other novel “Go Set a Watchman,” and the complexity of looking back on a history we think is black and white.
Joseph Crespino, Jimmy Carter Professor of American History at Emory College, is a historian of the twentieth century United States and the American South since Reconstruction.
State Bar of Texas Podcast
State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting 2018: Harper Lee and Documenting Complexity
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice with your host Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Well, hello and welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast brought to you in partnership with Legal Talk Network. This is Rocky Dhir here at the 2018 State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting in Houston.
You hear that buzz in the background? That’s what that is. That is the Annual Meeting under way.
I learned this morning that I am now an official adult. I am going to tell you why I am an official adult. You know you are a grown up, when you get to call professors by their first name; it’s the coolest thing ever.
So, I’ve with me here today Professor Joe Crespino; but I get to call him “Joe” because we are good like that; aren’t we Joe?
Joseph Crespino: Absolutely, Rocky.
Rocky Dhir: That’s what I’m talking about. So, Joe has written a very interesting book. Now, this is the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting, but you’re not a lawyer, Joe; are you?
Joseph Crespino: I am not a lawyer, no.
Rocky Dhir: But you’ve written this book on a topic that almost every lawyer seems to devour and love. Every lawyer I know, it’s all about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. So many lawyers were influenced by that book.
Joseph Crespino: Yep.
Rocky Dhir: You’ve written a book that I think a lot of lawyers will enjoy. Do you want to tell us a little bit about it?
Joseph Crespino: Yeah, it’s called ‘Atticus Finch: The Biography’.
Rocky Dhir: Oh.
Joseph Crespino: And, one of the things I should definitely tell the lawyers here in Texas is that, yes, I do realize that Atticus Finch is not a real person. I think that’s important to keep in mind.
Rocky Dhir: Well, he’s a fictional character, but I think, I’ve heard somewhere that he was based on Harper Lee’s actual father.
Joseph Crespino: That’s true. Harper Lee talked at the time of the book’s publication and when the movie came out, the book was published in 1960, it was made into a movie in 1962.
Rocky Dhir: The Gregory Peck one, we’ve all seen it.
Joseph Crespino: That’s right, and she talked about how her father was not exactly Atticus, but was the inspiration kind of inspired her to come with a character, that they shared a similar kind of disposition, that was the word she used.
Rocky Dhir: So, the case that we see in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Black man wrongfully accused a murder.
Joseph Crespino: Yep.
Rocky Dhir: Was that an actual story or was that story fictional, but Atticus Finch and who he is, was kind of inspired by her father; can you tell us at interplay?
Joseph Crespino: Yeah, there was no trial like the one that took place in the book that was exactly parallel to the experience of her father. Her father’s name is Amasa Coleman Lee. He did do some criminal work early in his career where he represented two Black men who were actually executed. They had killed — accused of killing a White man, but he didn’t really do a lot of criminal work. I mean, he did mostly just kind of wills in the States and just kind of work around town.
One of the things that I’ve found that helps us understand Harper Lee’s father a lot better, is to realize that like Atticus Finch he was a small town lawyer and a State legislator, but he was also the owner and the editor for 18 years of the local newspaper ‘The Monroe Journal’. He edited that for 18 years, from 1929 to 1947.
And I went back and I read all of those old newspapers and in a small-town newspaper from that era there was no guarantee that the editor would have a regular editorial page, where he’s laying out his opinions and that sort of thing.
But I went back and I looked and it was remarkable, because not only did AC Lee have an editorial page every week, but it was an active and an ambitious editorial page. And so, I read all 18 years worth of his newspapers and those editorials and I am able to kind of reconstruct his political worldview through the 1930s and 1940s and to see kind of how that might have impacted Harper Lee in her view of them.
Rocky Dhir: Do you think his political worldview was similar to that of Atticus Finch from what you read?
Joseph Crespino: Well, it depends, Rocky, on which Atticus Finch you are talking about. One of the things that makes this book possible to write a biography of Atticus Finch, is the fact that we had the publication in 2015 of this other novel. ‘Go Set of Watchmen’, which was discovered in a security deposit box in Monroeville, Alabama, published in 2015, and it presented this very different view of the character of Atticus Finch.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, tell us about that.
Joseph Crespino: So, in ‘Go Set a Watchman’ what happens is, it’s the same characters in both novels, and one of the things I’ve been able to show in my research is that Harper Lee imagined them as the same characters as part of a broader narrative arc.
So, it’s the same character that you have had Atticus and you have the adult Jean Louise, the adult Scout, and Jean Louise comes back from New York to her hometown and while she’s there something very dramatic happens. She realizes that her beloved, kind, wouldn’t hurt a ground squirrel father has joined up with the citizens’ councils, this organization of resistance of the Civil Rights Movement and the dictates of the Supreme Court in the Brown decision.
Rocky Dhir: So, Atticus, in that situation has gone completely the opposite way.
Joseph Crespino: Well, Atticus is exactly the way you would think, a 70-year-old arthritic Alabaman — White man in Alabama would be in 1956 or 1957. He’s opposed to the Civil Rights Movement, he has these very paternalistic racial views and he’s resentful about the changes that are taking place in his native region.
Rocky Dhir: And that’s how Harper Lee’s father was as well?
Joseph Crespino: Well, what’s interesting about Harper Lee’s father is and you go back and you read those editorials, is that, we see evidence. There’s evidence clearly there for both views of Atticus, both the ideal figure in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, the defender of the downtrodden, the defender of the jury system, the man who stood up against mob rule, when he protected Tom Robinson against the lynch mob that came.
But you also see how she could be inspired to write the figure in ‘Go Set a Watchman’, the racist reactionary figure, because over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, AC Lee is changing as the Civil Rights Movement is emerging as dramatic, social, cultural changes are coming to the south, so you really see inspiration for both of the characters.
Rocky Dhir: I think it’s raised an interesting question. So, when we look back on the prism of history and we look back at people from that era, I think there’s a tendency for us to say, oh my gosh, that was so — people were either racist or they were not racist, they were either pro civil rights or anti-civil rights, and the picture that you’re painting seems a bit more complicated and maybe a bit more in-depth. You’ve got people that want to protect the rights of the individual but maybe don’t believe in civil rights on a macro-racial level, is that?
Joseph Crespino: Yeah, absolutely, and that would be a good description of AC Lee, her father.
Rocky Dhir: Interesting, okay.
Joseph Crespino: Yeah.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Now, how did you get into this particular topic? Let’s get into your background a little bit. So, you’re a professor?
Joseph Crespino: Yep.
Rocky Dhir: A History professor, not a lawyer.
Joseph Crespino: That’s right, that’s right, very important.
Rocky Dhir: Well, congratulations, and if you could see Joe right now he looks very well-rested and not at all stressed out, so you can tell he’s not a lawyer, he looks very, very happy, he seemed to be very happy with what he do.
Joseph Crespino: Yeah.
Rocky Dhir: And you teach at Emory University.
Joseph Crespino: Right, Emory University in Atlanta. I’m a professor of 20th Century American Political History. So, a lot of my work has been about the history of the South and its transition from the Jim Crow era into the modern era. So, I write about the history of the South, really from the 1930s or so through the 20th Century.
And, my other books have been kind of more straightforward works of Political History; but, when I think about that period, there is this one kind of cultural production that looms so large and the way that we think about and understand what was its stake in the Jim Crow South? And that’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, both, the book and the movie. And so, I’ve long been fascinated by the book and the movie and wanting to write about.
The other part of it is kind of personal too. I come from the deep South. I’m from a very small town in Mississippi, Macon, M-A-C-O-N, it sounds a lot like Macon.
Rocky Dhir: Oh, Macon, Georgia?
Joseph Crespino: No, it’s Macon, Mississippi.
Rocky Dhir: Macon, Mississippi.
Joseph Crespino: Yeah, which is much smaller, about 2300 people.
Rocky Dhir: Now, do you guys have like a baseball team because Macon, Georgia has a baseball team.
Joseph Crespino: They do.
Rocky Dhir: And it’s called Macon Whoopee apparently. They are called — that’s the name of the team, I’m not making it up. They’re called the Macon Whoopee, I mean, don’t blame me for that.
Joseph Crespino: Yeah, we don’t have a baseball team at Macon, Mississippi.
Rocky Dhir: So no Macon Whoopie in your part?
Joseph Crespino: No Macon — there may be some Macon Whoopee, but there’s no baseball team.
Rocky Dhir: But not as a baseball team, fair enough. So, what you’re saying here kind of brings up a couple of questions to me. First and foremost, do you find that the college-age men and women of today find Harper Lee story to be relevant to their experiences or do they think of that as too far in the distant past? Number one.
Number two, a lot of lawyers seem to really idolize the story of Atticus Finch, and a lot of them drew inspiration for their legal careers when becoming lawyers. They said, oh, well, look at Atticus Finch. But then when we see ‘To Set a Watchman’, that paints a very different picture or at least it paints a deeper picture of him.
So, do you think that our understanding and sort of the cultural understanding of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ needs to change? So, is it still relevant to kids today and do you think that our understanding growing up has to change and be amended based on what you’ve read in ‘To Set a Watchman’?
Joseph Crespino: Well, I definitely think that the genie is out of the bottle without Atticus Finch, in a sense that we know now, from the archives and from this other work that Harper Lee was really struggling to make sense of her father’s kind of political heritage.
Her father’s kind of conservatism at a time in southern history in the late 1950s, that’s when she’s writing both of these novels, from 1957, 58 and 59. At a time when of great political Tumon in the south where there are reactionary kind of right-wing forces coming to the fore in southern politics. And so, she’s trying to make sense of her father’s conservative, kind of principled political perspective in the midst of this kind of right-wing reactionary politics. So, I think that’s what’s my book tells, which is very important.
Now, will ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ still be assigned to eighth graders and ninth graders? I hope so, because that’s still a book that a wonderful story beautifully told that students can read and think about kind of fundamental issues of tolerance and empathy in a multiracial democracy and how important those are.
So, I hope that people can still continue to read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and they are signed ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. But, I want them to read my book afterwards. When they get to college I think they should read my book.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Joseph Crespino: And I think they should read my book and understand the broader context in which Harper Lee was writing that book and what she was struggling to try to achieve.
Rocky Dhir: So, in your view and in your experience when you look back, we hear stories from the 1950s and 60s during the whole civil rights era, we hear stories of those who were resisting the change towards civil rights, and then you also read about people like Harper Lee, who really questioned that, even though they might have been part of an order in which there was separation of Whites from people of color; and now, we’re seeing that there were people back then who were White but were resisting that.
Have you figured out or do you have any theories as to what inspired Whites in the south to resist the established order and be in favor of these changes towards civil rights?
And the reason I ask that is, I wonder if we can learn something for today’s audience about how it is that we interpret the world around us and how do we think critically and how do we get young people to think critically and maybe question the norms that are prevailing in whatever time they live in.
Has your work kind of given you a hypothesis or a theory about that?
Joseph Crespino: I don’t have a theory about it. Historians don’t have theories, social scientists have theories.
Rocky Dhir: You sound like a lawyer.
Joseph Crespino: Historians have evidence. Like lawyers Historians have evidence.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Joseph Crespino: And we go back and we look at the evidence, and what history always tends to show us is that it’s a lot more complicated than we remember, and that our power to remember what happens is very weak and we need archival evidence and we need historical arguments to remind us about what was at stake and what was going on and how complicated, and what seems obvious to us today was not at all obvious to the people who were living through it. And I think when we understand that we can have a bit more empathy for those who came before us in the struggles that they had.
So, in terms of how did Harper Lee kind of see beyond the boundaries of her society and the kinds of lessons that she was supposed to learn as a White woman in the Jim Crow South in the 1930s and 40s, I think she learned it through reading. I think she learned it through her own kind of self-education and realizing there’s a bigger world out there beyond Monroeville, Alabama. But it’s important to understand too that Harper Lee was not some kind of crusader. She was herself ambivalent about some of the changes that were taking place in her home, and that’s one of the things that I talk about in my book as well.
Rocky Dhir: So, your book does explore Harper Lee in her own journey through these issues?
Joseph Crespino: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. So it’s called ‘Atticus Finch: A Biography’.
Joseph Crespino: Yep.
Rocky Dhir: Because even though he was a fictional character he was based on — on a person and on people from that time period?
Joseph Crespino: No, it’s kind of a — it’s a bit of a cheeky title. Atticus Finch is a fictional character.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Joseph Crespino: But it’s a kind of cultural and political history about how the character was created, how it changed overtime, both from ‘Go Set a Watchman’ to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, to the adaptation where Horton Foote, a great Texan, wrote the adaptation and changed the character of Atticus and subtle, but important ways to when Gregory Peck embodied him and changed Horton Foote’s script in certain ways, and on to the reception of the book and the novel, in this critical kind of high watermark of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. These are still relevant issues even all these many years later. It’s fascinating.
Well, Joe, it’s been a pleasure having you on here. Now, if somebody wants to get a hold of you, because I know there’s our listeners will be interested in learning more, what’s the best way for them to reach out?
Joseph Crespino: I think the best way to do it would be to go to www.basicbooks.com and that is my publisher Basic Books, and you will see there the book and other information about it.
Rocky Dhir: And are you on Twitter or LinkedIn or —
Joseph Crespino: I’m on Twitter. Yes, I’m on Twitter, #josephcrespino, and I would love to hear from folks.
Rocky Dhir: And I guess they can also find you on Emory University’s website?
Joseph Crespino: Absolutely, in the History Department at Emory University.
Rocky Dhir: And your email address is —
Joseph Crespino: [email protected].
Rocky Dhir: Awesome. So, if you are listening and if you’re interested in this, this is a huge issue. I am looking forward to reading this book. I’m going to get myself a copy of this; and, if you want to see Joe in-person, be sure and get onto YouTube, type-in “State Bar of Texas” and you’ll find an in-person interview on Texas Bar TV, and so, you’ll be able to see Joe in-person. You’ll be able to hear a little bit more about his story; but, thank you so much for joining us here today.
State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting is always just an amazing place to be and you can hear the excitement and the buzz in the background. I hope you guys will make it out for next year’s annual meeting.
But, in the meantime, this is Rocky Dhir, with the latest edition of the State Bar of Texas Podcast in partnership with Legal Talk Network. I want to thank our guest, Joe Crespino, for joining us.
And if you liked what you heard today, please find us, rate us in Apple Podcasts, or using your favorite podcast app.
Again, thank you for being here. We’ll talk to you soon and we hope you enjoyed this trip because life’s a journey, folks, tune in.
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