Call it an Atticus flinch: the involuntary shudder felt when encountering yet another headline about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Last summer the late author sparked the literary debate of the decade with the publication of a half-baked sequel, Go Set a Watchman, which wrecked the reputation of Lee’s once-beloved hero. Readers who are still gun-shy after the Watchman controversy may find a modicum of comfort in Joseph Madison Beck’s new memoir, My Father & Atticus Finch: A Lawyer’s Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama.
Beck, an Atlanta attorney and Emory Law School adjunct professor, adds texture and context to Lee’s novels by recounting his own tense family history. In 1938 the author’s father defended a black man accused of raping a white woman in Troy, Alabama. Drawing from letters, newspaper articles, court documents, and recalled conversations, the book graciously reconstructs an egregious miscarriage of justice in a bygone era. The courtroom drama unfolds in language that’s immediate and cinematic, even if some scenes border on twee.
While similarities to Mockingbird are undeniable, Beck simply hopes that his father’s story may have inspired Lee. “I don’t doubt that her novel is fiction,” he writes. “But might stories . . . nonetheless have filtered through to Monroeville, also in south Alabama, where Ms. Lee, at the time 12 years old, grew up?”
As in Watchman, the focus drifts into deliberations on topics ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to Hank Aaron’s mixed-race baseball league. Beck also considers the “blind spots” among even the era’s progressives, which helps shed light on Finch’s controversial views in the sequel.
According to the preface, Beck’s manuscript was finished before the release of Watchman, “a book that brings to mind the question: who is the real Atticus Finch—the beloved lawyer in Mockingbird or the paternalistic bigot of Watchman? The truth is, there were both kinds of Atticus . . . in south Alabama in those days.” My Father and Atticus Finch may not solve the Gordian knot of race relations in the Jim Crow South, but it does help map the thorny landscape that later hatched a masterpiece.
This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.