The Creation of Atticus Finch

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 20, 2015

Readers who love To Kill A Mockingbird with the passion of a true believer should not read Go Set A Watchman. However, if you want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, how books used to be edited, and how a decent literary novel evolved into one of the greatest novels of all time, then you’ll probably need to read Go Set A Watchman.

Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most beloved, admired and respected character in all of literature. How was such a character created? Before this year most readers assumed Harper Lee based Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a real-life lawyer, using her mother, Frances Finch, family’s name. Superficially, it appears we have many clues to suggest the story was autobiographical. This month, Go Set A Watchman was published, an earlier draft of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch in Watchman is a much different man than the literary saint he became in the final version?

Atticus Finch

I am troubled by the implication of many reviewers of the Go Set A Watchman that the 1930s Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird has matured into the 1950s Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman. 1950s Atticus was created first even though his story appears second in print and second in time. 1930s Atticus evolved from 1950s Atticus.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper’s Lee ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” by Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times gives us some clues. Harper Lee was lucky to find Tay Hohoff at J. B. Lippincott for her editor. Hohoff was the old fashioned kind of editor that worked extensively with a writer to shape their novels. Hohoff convinced Lee not to go with the novel she submitted.  I assume that submission is close to what we’re reading now as Go Set A Watchman. Lee and Hohoff worked two years editing the book that became To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. Mahler also brings up one other valuable clue—Hohoff wrote A Ministry to Man, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott during this time that was published in 1959. There might be a good bit of Lovejoy in Atticus since the two woman worked so closely together, and the editor may have convinced Lee to create a more humanistic hero for her story.

My guess is Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman was probably closer to Amasa Coleman Lee, and the Atticus in Mockingbird is closer to John Lovejoy Elliott. But I also assume that Atticus is mostly the creation of Nelle Harper Lee. We can never know the actual scientific details of the evolution of Atticus Finch. It’s not too wild of a speculation that Hohoff convinced Lee that she needed a likable hero which Atticus Watchman was not. How much Hohoff actually contributed to the creation of Atticus is unknown.

We love Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but her story would not have made the novel one of the perfect novels of all time. The success of Mockingbird tells me a great novel needs a great character that will be widely loved. How did Harper Lee learn this? From Hohoff? What about from her real father? We don’t know what Amasa Lee was like, but if he was closer to the Atticus Finch in Watchman, he could have taught Nelle Lee she needed a saint and not a real person like himself to create an immortal character. This is just speculation, but the ending of Go Set A Watchman makes me wonder if Nelle was inspired by her father to become a prophet for her cause. (By the way, a prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one who shapes the future. Harper Lee is a true prophet.)

Readers want Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird to be real. Like all great people in history, their legend overshadows their reality. Atticus Finch stands with Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as being saintly inspirations to the masses, but they all were probably less than perfect to their friends and family. Harper Lee’s writing shows she was an incredibly sharp observer of people, culture and history. I can easily imagine Lee and Hohoff sitting around speculating on possibilities and throwing out, “What if Atticus Finch became a saint to his readers?” It was at that point that the Atticus of Watchman evolves into the Atticus of Mockingbird. It took Lee a couple of years to transform her protagonist. Whereas the early fathers of Christianity spent two hundred years transforming their god. If Lee had spent any more time on Atticus I’m afraid Lee would have given Atticus psychic powers and let him walk on water.

scout jem dill cropped

It’s fascinating that Harper Lee rewrote the novel and set it twenty years earlier. This was a savvy move because it let her create Scout, Jem and Dill as immortal characters rather than anecdotes of memory. But it also positioned Atticus back into time letting him stand out as a guiding light amongst his peers. It’s actually very hard to imagine 1930s Atticus dealing with the 1950s issues. Reducing everything to one court case simplified the major plot and left room for the second plot of Boo Radley. The trial doesn’t begin until the middle of the novel, but everything that comes before sets up the second half of the story. Somehow Hohoff convinced Lee to take sketches of her past and put them into a holistic unity. That also helped shape the character Atticus.

If you’ve read Go Set A Watchman you know it’s filled with long verbose passages dealing with intellectual arguments over race, often about desegregation, a concept 1930s people couldn’t imagine. This makes the 1950s Atticus a mouthpiece for racist rationalization. Throwing the story back twenty years, and letting Atticus speak far less, gives him wisdom and compassion, allowing him to be ahead of his times with modern humanistic insight. 1930s Atticus anticipating the 1950s makes for a much better Atticus. Writing a contemporary novel with a character who thinks with future insight is probably impossible. No wonder most great novels are about events that have gestated in a writer’s mind for decades. It’s also why successful prophets of history were discovered long after the fact.

The Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is made a hero for Jean Louise in a roundabout way. I’m extremely glad to have read Go Set A Watchman, but that’s because it gives me a lot of evidence about how Harper Lee became a great writer. Comparing the two makes it all too obvious why Lee never published anything more. It would have seem silly to create another best-selling saint, and foolish to compete with her own success. Lee could have done something like J. K. Rowling and explored another genre. I assume she didn’t stop writing, but probably kept it to herself like J. D. Salinger did all those years. Wouldn’t it be weird to see an early draft of Catcher in the Rye?

If Harper Lee had only written about Scout, Jem and Dill, she could have continued to crank out novels her whole life like Louisa May Alcott did after Little Women. Or if Lippincott had published Go Set A Watchman, which would have had modest success, she could have shown improvement. But to create something so perfect as To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I can understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the world of fame.


10 thoughts on “The Creation of Atticus Finch”

  1. I’ve never gotten around to reading “Mockingbird”. How much of “Atticus Finch” is there in the novel and how much is Gregory Peck?

    1. For many people, the movie is all they’ve seen, and Gregory Peck makes a great Atticus Finch. It was the role of a lifetime for him. PJ, you should read the book though, or listen to it. The audio edition is wonderful. It’s not my all-time favorite book, but I can’t think of a more perfectly told story.

  2. Interesting post, Jim. I’m not really convinced of anything concerning how much of Atticus I (Go Set a Watchman) is evolved or morphed from Atticus II ((To Kill Mockingbird) – from the old scared man as originally written into the young idealist as redesigned. Who knows, perhaps not even Lee heself could say how much her first rendering influenced the second.

    I rather like the idea of the two versions being the same guy, and the books together showing what can happen to an young idealist in the South over the period between the 1930s and the late 1950s. That is certainly what is implied by Scout’s grief and disillusionment in the first book, Go Set a Watchman. It really asks the question about how, specificslly she was raised that gave her the impression Atticus was a Civil Rights kind of guy. It’s just not all spelled out in that book in GSaW, but it could certainly have been more or less along the lines we’re shown of To Kill a Mockingbird.

    1. Becky, you have it backwards. But that’s how reading the books feel. Watchman feels like a sequel. Watchman is the first draft though, and the Atticus we love first appeared as the Atticus in Watchman. It’s mind bending if you read both books because strangely, the first draft feels so perfectly real as a sequel. I wonder if Lee and Hohoff ever considered publishing them that way.

      The reality though is Mockingbird Atticus evolved from two years of two women thinking about who he should be.

      If Lee brought her book to an editor today it would have been published as Go Set A Watchman, and we’d never known To Kill A Mockingbird.

      1. We differ on a couple points. I still think the young Atticus, as presented in BOTH books was young and idealistic or Jean would not have been so terribly disillusioned with how he turned out as an old man. She really lambastes him for not sticking by the ideals she thought she grew up with. In fact, she darned near leaves town because of her rage at this new (to her anyway) side of him. Why would she have been surprised to see him sitting with the Klan folks if she had this man, as he is now, for a father? But it seems as if she either didn’t even suspect or he changed.

        If I read Go Set a Watchman first , snd knew nothing of the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, I’d have to wonder about how Jean’s formative years had played out – what were they like if she is so unhappy with the apparent change in Atticus?

        Second, even if Go Set a Watchman were sent in today by an unpublished new author I doubt it would get published without massive editing. Imo, it’s got too much philosophical /political ranting and raving about States Rights /Civil Rights. This is a young woman seeing the realities of where she lives – not heartwarming but a political diatribe relevant to the 1950s and early ”60s. Readers today only accept it because the author is not an unknown but is Harper Lee, the author of the beloved Atticus Finch.

        1. That’s an excellent point I missed – that Atticus had at one time had been more liberal in Watchman. Which would explain another reason why Lee changed him. Her editor might have told her the younger Atticus would have been the better character.

          I don’t think Go Set A Watchman would have been accepted today, and was barely accepted in the 1950s because an editor wanted to work with Lee to change it. However, it wasn’t a bad book for a first effort. An it’s an extremely interesting artifact for fans of Mockingbird.

          From everything I’ve read it’s extremely rare for editors to work with writers like Hohoff today.

          1. Yes, we’re extremely fortunate that Lee had an editor like Hohoff apparently was. I understand Truman Capote also helped Lee – maybe not as much as I first thought, though. I’m getting more interested in Lee’s biography.

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