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Harper Lee’s philo-Semitism

The author of To Kill a Mockingbird, who died Friday, portrayed Jews and the Jewish people in a distinctly positive light
The late author Harper Lee receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 (White House / Eric Draper)
The late author Harper Lee receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 (White House / Eric Draper)

Harper Lee’s death is a time to reflect on last summer’s controversy over the provenance and release of Go Set a Watchman and to assess the outcry and significance of the novel, as well as Lee’s legacy.

Her first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is set in a small, fictitious Alabama city, Maycomb, during the 1930’s at a time when Jim Crow laws were in full force, with racial segregation and discrimination against blacks deeply ingrained in the political, economic and social fabric of the South. The novel, which is loosely based on Harper Lee’s childhood memories, is a heart-rending and, at times, funny, coming of age story.

This gripping tale builds slowly but gains emotional force when Scout, the 6-year-old narrator, learns that against the backdrop of such hatred and bigotry, her father, Atticus Finch, has agreed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, falsely accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell. Despite Atticus’ seemingly best efforts at a courtroom-packed trial, with an all-white jury, Tom is not surprisingly found guilty and sent to jail, where he is later shot to death after trying to escape. Even though Atticus took the case as a court-appointed lawyer, Scout paints — and idolizes — her beloved father for representing Tom (and for other civic-minded efforts), perhaps naively, as an enlightened and honorable person, leaving the impression that he was someone without a racist bone in his body.

After it was published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird became a literary sensation. Indeed, the novel was not only a bestseller, but also it received unequivocal critical acclaim, with Harper Lee being granted the 1961 Pulitzer Prize. What’s more, given its overwhelmingly popularity, To Kill a Mockingbird was turned into a major motion picture. Produced by Alan Pakula and directed by Robert Mulligan, the three-time Oscar winning 1962 film featured Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the starring role. The success of both the novel and movie reinforced the notion, already implanted in many people’s mind, of the fictional Atticus as a paragon of virtue and the moral conscience of the South, if not the nation.

That simplistic, if not unblemished, image of him dramatically changes with the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman, which takes place 20 years later when Scout, now referred to as Jean Louise, visits her family in Maycomb after having moved to New York city. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel is based in part on Harper Lee’s life and has a subplot involving Jean Louise’s relationship — and potential marriage — to Henry Clinton. But the centerpiece of the book, which lacks some of the depth, richness and evocative power of To Kill a Mockingbird, is Jean Louise’s horrifying discovery that her adored father harbors — or at best tolerates — racist views.

This occurs when Jean Louise finds a pamphlet on her father’s lamp table entitled The Black Plague, which she learns he received from the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. Soon afterwards Jean Louise goes to the town’s old courthouse at which a meeting of the Council is taking place. Unbeknownst to Atticus and Henry, who are in attendance, she eavesdrops from the balcony, where Jean Louise hears the featured speaker, Grady O’Hanlon, spew ugly, hateful racist ideas, after which she hurriedly leaves sickened by her father’s participation in such a despicable gathering. When she later confronts Atticus about it, he responds with the stock-in-trade rhetoric of many Southern whites at the time, cautioning about state’s rights, blacks not being ready for full equality, the Supreme Court acting too quickly, interference from the NAACP and so on. Jean Louise feels betrayed and let down by her father, who she had seen as the perfect model of enlightenment thinking.

Like Jean Louise, many reviewers of Go Set a Watchman have been disillusioned by Atticus’ tarnished reputation and, as such, been very critical of the book, perhaps because it shakes their own cherished ideals inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird. Others, however, have pointed out that this portrayal of him is not only more complex, but also a more accurate and realistic depiction of someone like him at that time. Still others see no contradiction between the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird and his namesake in Go Set a Watchman: that Southern liberals like Atticus could both defend a person like Tom Robinson out of a sense of obligation but at the same time have serious doubts and concerns about the pace of change in race relations.

Whatever one ultimately thinks about Atticus, Lee’s novels are a stark reminder about the continued plight of blacks in America today, a point also recently driven home in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ moving Between the World and Me and Eddie Glaude’s provocative Democracy in Black. Indeed, while there is no question that significant progress has been made since the 1950’s, there is much more that needs to be done to remove the remaining vestiges of racism, as well as to combat the poverty, high unemployment and violence plaguing most of America’s inner cities. To be successful, this will not only require enormous amount of political courage and will. It will also require much more forceful governmental action as well as greater individual and communal initiative and responsibility by black Americans.

Besides this important reminder and call to action, one of the other fascinating things about Harper Lee’s works, viewed from a narrower Jewish perspective, is her apparent philo-Semitism. One of the striking features of this positive attitude toward Jews is the reference to Jewish businessman Sam Levy in To Kill a Mockingbird. As it says: “The Levy family met all the criteria for being Fine Folks: they did the best they could with the sense they had, and they had been living on the same plot of ground in Maycomb for five generations.” Similarly, there are several positive references to Jewish-sounding businesses in both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, with such names as Ginsberg, A. Nachman, Gayfer’s, Hammel’s, and so forth, perhaps inspired by actual Jewish retail outlets, near where Lee had lived.

Of even greater significance is the four-page discussion of the Holocaust in Chapter 26 of To Kill a Mockingbird. In this chapter, the elementary school teacher rails against the horrors of Nazism and fails to understand why Jews’ are the target of Hitler’s reign of terror. As she says: “There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me.” Admittedly, the novel is trying to show the hypocrisy of America’s failure to see the evils of racism in its own backyard, but what’s truly remarkable is that the Holocaust is being spoken about at a time when few Jewish leaders and writers were talking about it (with the exception of Elie Wiesel’s Night), let alone getting serious treatment by a Southern Methodist from rural Alabama.

What accounts for Harper Lee’s apparent positive attitude toward Jews? It is hard to say. Perhaps it was her friendship with the children of people like Jewish businessman Sam Levy. Or perhaps it was her connection with Jews in New York, especially in the publishing industry, where they have played an instrumental and prominent role. But whatever the reason, it is comforting to know that at a time when a certain segment of our country’s intellectual and academic elite are hostile to Israel and Jewish concerns, one of America’s literary giants could be counted as a friend.

About the Author
Richard D. Zelin, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to various Jewish publications. He serves in a senior level Jewish communal position in the Chicago area. The views expressed are his own.
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