Harper Lee, Segregationist? - Public Books

“Biography,” according to Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman, “is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world.” The lure of the genre, she argues, is its voyeuristic essence: “a kind of collusion” between the reader and the biographer in which they go “tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.”1

In his new book, Atticus Finch: The Biography, Emory University historian Joseph Crespino subverts both the premise and the essence of Malcolm’s definition. Atticus Finch is after all a fictional character, who, while famous, is not and never can be dead. And the tiptoeing journey on which Crespino invites his reader is not to the bedroom door, but through the library stacks.

The result is a fascinating analysis of Finch’s evolution in literature, film, and the American imagination. But it never yields to what Malcolm calls biography’s “transgressive nature.” Crespino ignores many of the most controversial questions that swirl around his subject. And along the way, he takes a disconcertingly ambivalent tone in his exploration of mid-20th-century Southern conservatism.