TOPICS > Arts > NewsHour Bookshelf

How Harper Lee’s alternative take on Atticus Finch may resonate with readers

July 13, 2015 at 6:10 PM EDT
Harper Lee’s newly published novel "Go Set a Watchman" offers a dramatically different tone and take on the character Atticus Finch from her beloved work "To Kill a Mockingbird." Jeffrey Brown talks to former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Wayne Flynt of Auburn University about how the work resonates in American culture and how it reflects Lee’s intentions.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

And we’re joined now by Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus at Auburn University and a close personal friend of Harper Lee, and Natasha Trethewey, who read and reviewed the new book for The Washington Post. NewsHour viewers will, of course, remember Natasha for the stories she did with us during her tenure as poet laureate.

So, welcome back, Natasha.

Let me start with you and ask, before we get into larger meanings and readings, were you surprised by what you found?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, Former U.S. Poet Laureate: Well, I was surprised, Jeff.

I was surprised by the way that we were getting a different kind of depth of character of Atticus than we’d seen before in “Mockingbird” and surprised about what kind of character that was.

JEFFREY BROWN:
And in what way? What did you see?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, we get to know him, I think, with more contradictions and complexities, which, of course, I think makes him more human to us.

We get to see that, even as he is the person that we know from “Mockingbird” who believes in justice for all and making sure that people get a fair trial, that he also can maintain some deeply ingrained and unexamined notions of racial difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Wayne Flynt, the protagonist is a woman who, like Harper Lee herself, comes back to visit her small town from living in New York. It’s been speculated that Atticus Finch is based on her father. What light can you shed on that and how we see this new portrayal?

WAYNE FLYNT, Auburn University: I think all fiction to some degree is autobiographical.

And I certainly think Coleman Lee is the prototype. And I also think perhaps in some ways, he’s the prototype of what we have in “Go Set a Watchman.” Fathers are perfect between 6 and 9. At 26, for most of us, they’re not so perfect anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN:
Did the portrayal ring true to you, ring true to your own experience or the experience you knew with Harper Lee?

WAYNE FLYNT:
Absolutely.

I was 17 in 1956, when she wrote this book. And I was having the same kind of problems with my father. I, like her, had slipped the bonds in terms of my culture in terms of race, also partly for the same reason she had. She’d read the Bible too much and she felt the Southern church was terribly flawed in its understanding of race.

So, processing all that racial change between ’49 and ’56 in New York City, I think she had real problems with her father, who wasn’t moving on race nearly as quickly as Harper and her sister Alice in Monroeville were.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natasha Trethewey, you wrote in your review, we have this far more complicated now of a beloved American figure, character in culture. You saw resonances up to today, right?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s right.

You know, I agree very much with Wayne, too. I know experiencing that disillusionment of my own father over the years. And so reading “Mockingbird” and “Go Set a Watchman” just made that personal experience vivid for me all over again.

But I saw, also, in it, because she was writing the book in the aftermath of the Brown decision, a lot of conversation about the courts making the Brown decision and the South feeling dominated yet again, being told what to do, the issue of states’ rights, the way that we’re talking about the issue of the flag, the Confederate Flag, because, of course, in states like Georgia and South Carolina, the flag was raised or incorporated into the state flag in order to protest that Brown decision and the courts and the federal government’s enforcement of the new law.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Wayne Flynt, what about there in Alabama, the resonance up to today?

WAYNE FLYNT: Well, I think there are still the vestiges of racism that are here, I think of the differences between those who voted for Barack Obama and those who voted for his opponent.

Alabama had the sharpest racial divide of any state in the union, so I think the vestiges are still there. And — but we process this through family, community. We have to decide whether we’re going to make our separate peace and go someplace else, where we don’t have to bother with all these issues, or whether we stay here and fight to make Alabama better.

And I think that was her — the issue for her. It’s interesting that her sister Alice stayed and fought and tried to integrate Monroeville Methodist Church and change her denomination. Nelle decided to give up on Alabama and left. And I understand both those options.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just stay with you, Wayne Flynt. I have to ask you the question about everything that was raised when this all came out about what Harper Lee, what she agreed to, how much she understood about what is going on. What can you tell us?

WAYNE FLYNT: One of her wonderful lines was, “Same damn town, same damned people as I wrote about in ‘Mockingbird.'”

JEFFREY BROWN: Meaning what?

WAYNE FLYNT: Meaning that there is a lot of provincialism, a lot of small-mindedness.

They don’t much like Nelle’s lawyer, who is the ultimate outsider. She’s Catholic. Her grandfather fought in the Union army against the Confederacy. She didn’t belong.

And I’m afraid, Jeff, that the greatest concentration of neurologists in the United States are in Monroeville, and they can all diagnose dementia without ever having met Nelle or talked to her in the last five years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nelle, of course, is the name of Harper Lee, right, that she goes by. You all know her as Nelle.

WAYNE FLYNT:
Yes, correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

WAYNE FLYNT: Correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natasha, let me ask you — what about in the new book — what does the new book tell us about her as a writer? What can readers take from it?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, I mean, the first thing that we can take from it is getting to see something about the process that a writer goes through, creating a first draft and then working toward changing that first draft into the book that it later becomes, and, in this case, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

So, getting to see the draft, something that began it, is exciting, because you know that it didn’t begin perfectly, the way that it ended up. I think it also lets us see the way that she was timely in her concerns, that she was trying to write a book in the moment that was contending with what was happening all across South.

JEFFREY BROWN:
All right, a new take on an American classic.

Natasha Trethewey, Wayne Flynt, thank you both so much.

GWEN IFILL:
Amazing story.

SHARE VIA TEXT