Why A More Complicated Atticus Could Be A New Learning Opportunity

Posted by Laura Tavares on July 15, 2015

Like so many literature lovers, I’d been eagerly anticipating yesterday's release of Go Set a Watchman. For nearly two years, I’ve been thinking about the world of Maycomb as I worked with colleagues to create Facing History and Ourselves’ resource Teaching Mockingbird. I couldn’t wait to read Watchman, which has been described as a first draft or “parent” of To Kill a Mockingbird, to learn more about how Harper Lee first imagined beloved characters like Atticus, Scout, and Jem, and to see how she depicts Maycomb in the 1950s.

Like so many others, I was surprised to learn that in Watchman, Lee renders Atticus as a segregationist who clashes with his daughter over his racist beliefs. Surprised, but not shocked, because a close reading of Mockingbird reveals that Lee portrays Atticus with a nuance and complexity that is somewhat at odds with the idealized vision of his character in popular culture. At a time when the United States is grappling with traumas of race, violence, and justice, in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and beyond, Watchman could be an invitation to read both books with a more realistic, complex, and sophisticated analysis of morality and the choices people make in difficult times.  

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At Facing History, we’re just beginning to come to grips with this new text and how it might inform the way we read and teach Mockingbird. A central goal of our Teaching Mockingbird resource was to deepen our reading of the novel by integrating historical context, documents, and sources that reflect the African American voices that are missing in Scout’s narration. Watchman, too, is an opportunity to complicate our thinking about Mockingbird. Over the next weeks, we’ll be immersing ourselves in Watchman to develop approaches that will help you bring this new work and its historical context into the classroom, in time for the new school year.

In the meantime, I’ve been following the varied reactions to Watchman in the press and on social media. When the first chapter and early reviews were released late last week, readers reacted with celebration, but also confusion, dismay, sadness, anger, even a sense of betrayal. Some vowed never to read the new book. How do we account for the impassioned responses to Watchman? What do they suggest about the status of Mockingbird and its characters in our culture? Why is it so hard to let go of a vision of Atticus as a perfect hero? Can we hear a different, more nuanced, and even uncertain moral message in the enlarged story of the Finches and Maycomb?

We’ll be asking these questions as we face history, literature, and ourselves in Teaching Mockingbird seminars with educators all over the country this summer. What do you think? Are you reading Watchman? Do you think it will change your understanding of Mockingbird? And what do you make of readers’ intense, animated reactions to this new work? 

Topics: To Kill a Mockingbird, Books, English Language Arts, Reconstruction, News, History, Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

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