Taking Harper Lee as a Serious Critic of Race Relations!

Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished reading Harper Lee’s recently published old book, Go Set a Watchman. The media has been all over the reviews of this book mainly because it completely turns around the image of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird from defender of a wrongly accused black man to segregationist. Patrick Chura, a professor of English at the University of Akron, has a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) that calls for scholars to now take Harper Lee as a serious critic of race relations in this country. Chura states: 

“Read together, Lee’s two novels complicate each other in beautiful and profound ways, offering a compelling case of textual revisions made during a politically contentious period and valuable possibilities for comparative study. Asking students to weigh the difference, for example, between vigorously defending the rights of a black man — as Atticus famously does in Mockingbird — and affording all blacks full humanity — as Atticus clearly does not in Watchman — can elicit opinions about an issue that has arisen frequently in history and literature, that has attended such figures as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln, and that is relevant now. Are the heroic Atticus of Mockingbird and the anti-heroic Atticus of Watchman different people? Not necessarily. Students should be pressured to articulate the many meanings of this paradox…

Had Harper Lee kept to her original civil-rights manuscript and been allowed to direct her energy toward developing Go Set a Watchman, we might have had a greater book than To Kill a Mockingbird. As it stands, we have a thought-provoking and powerful new novel that deserves to be read and discussed in culture-studies classrooms beginning immediately.”

I agree fully.  In Watchman, the exchanges between a grown-up Scout and her family especially her father are deep thoughtful commentary on the complexity of race in the United States and especially the South. It should be required reading in any course where race and racism is a topic.



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