Although dismaying to some Lee fans, the belated publication of “Watchman,” an apprentice work containing the germ plasm of “Mockingbird,” cast light on the virtues and limitations of the author and her canonical novel. It also opened the door to serious scholarship like “Atticus Finch: The Biography,” Joseph Crespino’s crisp, illuminating examination of Harper Lee’s dueling doppelgängers and their real-life model, Lee’s politician father, A. C. Lee. Crespino, who holds a wonderful title — he is the Jimmy Carter professor of history at Emory University — displays a confident understanding of the era of genteel white supremacists like A. C. Lee. He understands that the New South still labors, as Lee’s daughter did throughout her long, complicated life, under an old shadow. This book’s closely documented conclusion is that A. C. Lee, who once chased an integrationist preacher out of the Monroeville Methodist Church, and his devoted albeit sporadically rebellious daughter, Nelle Harper Lee, both wanted the world to have a better opinion of upper-class Southern WASPs than they deserve. These are the people Harper Lee and I grew up among — educated, well-read, well-traveled Alabamians who would never invite George Wallace into their homes, but nonetheless watched in silence as he humiliated poor Alabama in the eyes of the world.
This book opens a window into “Mockingbird’s” scrubbed-up Alabama of memory, into the literary politics of the modern South, and into the argument that existed in Lee’s imagination when she arrived at 19 on the University of Alabama’s campus in 1945 and when she died in a Monroeville nursing home in 2016. Her student journalism seethes with outrage over Montgomery’s pack of political thugs, but it also reflects the signature neurosis of her class — that educated white Alabamians are looked down upon as ignorant rednecks because the state’s “good people” are unfairly demonized over the racial brutality that is only partof the Alabama story. What the world saw as a hideous carcinoma on Alabama’s face in the days of “massive resistance” was, in fact, only a wart on the public visage of respectable white segregationists struggling with an unfixable inheritance of white trash on the one side and a fractious black minority on the other.