Gay Talese: ‘Don’t Be Surprised’ That Atticus Finch Is Racist in Go Set a Watchman

Gay Talese. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Gay Talese spent many formative years in Alabama. He attended the University of Alabama from 1949 to 1953 — or, as he calls it, “the Harper Lee period.” He also covered the state for the New York Times as a reporter, most recently going down to Selma to cover the Bloody Sunday anniversary. He met Harper Lee a couple of times when he was in Alabama. “She was, of course, then a rather fragile, celebrated, shy, celebrity. As anybody that reads about her knows, she was not reveling in her celebrity, ever,” Talese told Vulture at Thursday’s premiere of Samba, hosted by the Peggy Siegal Company. “She was a very private person, but her work spoke for her.” He continued, “So I know the work of Harper Lee, I know the soul of the Southerner, even though I'm an interloper, coming from New Jersey as a student.”

That’s part of why Talese isn’t the least bit surprised that the beloved Atticus Finch, who appeared as a hero in To Kill a Mockingbird, would reemerge in Lee’s new novel Go Set a Watchman as a racist. “It’s the 1950s. It’s the pre-civil-rights period, the Eisenhower period,” he said. “I read about what’s going on, but it seems not remarkable to me that a person — an outstanding, upstanding, somewhat righteous person with regard to humanity, as Atticus Finch is depicted — would have that other side, that less sunlit area of his brain that could be responsive to, and maybe a proponent of, racism. Because it was a period — this period in which Harper Lee existed as a writer — when there was very little social conscience, not only in the deep South, but particularly in the deep South, because it was so nakedly racist there, with ‘colored,’ with separate water fountains, and all that stuff. Whereas in the North, it was much more hypocritical.”

We were speaking outside of the Paris Theatre on 58th Street in Manhattan. “We are speaking now off the Plaza Hotel, on the illustrious East Side of Manhattan,” he said gesturing at our tony surroundings. “There is not an African-American resident or occupant of any of these buildings within range of our eyesight. This had been true when I first moved to this neighborhood in 1956, and it’s still true — I live in this neighborhood — in 2015,” he explained. “So we’re really talking about the shock that some people who are lovers of the book have, now that Atticus Finch is showing his dark side. Well, don’t be surprised, because many people who on the front are defense attorneys, outstanding citizens, elected officials, have that other side, which does not exactly come out on all occasions, but lurks within their soul. And sometimes makes a rare public appearance, to the dismay of a lot of naive people.”