I wanted to read about the enigmatic Harper Lee whose To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most widely read American novels and among the most popular books to reread. I was inspired by Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee to reread To Kill a Mockingbird (it had been at least 25 years) which led to rereading Go Set a Watchman which led to reading Atticus Finch: The Biography by historian Joseph Crespino. The four books framed a short course in publishing, literary criticism, character development, history, sociology, and biography; a fascinating interplay of stories, real and imagined, and the fine lines that separate them.
The publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 created fresh opportunities to research the life of Harper Lee and review To Kill a Mockingbird and its characters, especially Atticus Finch; for some a disconcerting affair but also an enriching complexity that re-frames the field of view, removing from the shadows details in the lives of Lee and her characters that enrich rather than diminish her work. To Kill a Mockingbird is fluid and refined, simple even. But Go Set a Watchman is unencumbered, rough and raw, complicated by dissonance. Go Set a Watchman is the story that poured out of Lee first in the initial weeks of 1957 after a Christmas gift of time allowed Lee to quit her job and devote herself to writing. Go Set a Watchman provides insight into Lee’s life not available in To Kill a Mockingbird, exposing hidden kernels of her life’s truth that inform the lives of her characters, most undeniably that of Atticus Finch.
While I was interested in the comparative literariness of Harper’s two novels and, upon rereading, came away with a greater appreciation for both books, it was less the construction of each novel and more the dynamic between them, played out in Lee’s real life story and covered so well by Cep and Crespino, that made reading them again so engaging. The Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee and Atticus Finch: The Biography are well researched, well written, and well worth the time.