Searching for Atticus Finch: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, and a Fictional American Icon

Joseph Crespino
Joseph Crespino
Emory University

Joseph Crespino has been a professor of American History at Emory University since 2003, where he teaches courses on 20th century U.S. political and cultural history, and on the history of the American South since Reconstruction.  His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Academy of Education.  In 2014, he served as the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Tubingen, and he has been named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Organization of American Historians.  Crespino has published three books, has co-edited a collection of essays, and has written for academic journals as well as The New York Times, the Washington PostPolitico, and the Wall Street Journal.

Overview

In celebration of its 125th anniversary, The New York Times Book Review recently asked readers to name the best book of the last 125 years.  The winner was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Sixty years after receiving the Pulitzer Prize, the book remains a favorite among generations of readers, and its hero, Atticus Finch, endures as a touchstone of decency, fairness, and civic virtue.  How Atticus came to occupy that lofty status is an intriguing story.

The publication in 2015 of Lee’s apprentice work, Go Set a Watchman, shocked fans for its depiction of Atticus as a small-minded racist reactionary.  How can one explain the contradictory characters?  And what exactly is the relationship between the two books?

In this talk, Joseph Crespino argues that whatever you think about Go Set a Watchman as a novel, it is fascinating as a historical document.  As a historian of the American South, Professor Crespino reconsiders Lee’s novels alongside an array of exclusive historical sources, as well as the political and social history of Harper Lee’s native South.  She wrote these books amid the civil rights revolution.  You need not have read either of Harper Lee’s books to gain fresh insights from this talk about not only Lee and her remarkable literary creations, but also the southern civil rights struggle that preoccupied her, and that transformed the nation.

 

 

Suggested Readings:

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Atticus Finch: The Biography – Harper Lee, Her Father, and the Making of an American Icon, by Joseph Crespino

 

Discussion Questions:

1.)   In what ways did Harper Lee’s father influence the creation of both versions of Atticus?

2.)   Which political events in Alabama in the 1940s and 1950s most influenced Lee and her fiction?

3.)   How did the makers of the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird influence the depiction of Atticus?

4.)   Is Atticus Finch, in essence, one of the “white moderates” that Martin Luther King denounced in his famous essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail?”

 

 

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Jeffrey Watt

Atticus Finch

Great way to highlight the history during that important period. Super interesting to learn more about that time period.

2 months ago
Doug Schallau

Excellent To Kill a Mockingbird Presentation

If you didn’t get to see it live, I highly recommend you go into the archives. Very well done.

2 months ago
EDWARD WALSH

Searching for Atticus finch in To kill a mockingbird

Professor Crespino is an excellent lecturer. I did expect his presentation to be about different parts of the book entitled, how to be a mockingbird rather it turned out to be a rather excellent explanation of what influenced Harper Lee to write this book and the other book, to set a watchman. Fascinating indeed.

2 months ago
EDWARD WALSH

Searching for Atticus finch in To kill a mockingbird

Professor Crespino is an excellent lecturer. I did expect his presentation to be about different parts of the book entitled, how to be a mockingbird. rather it turned out to be a rather perceptive explanation of what influenced Harper Lee to write this book and the other book, to set a watchman. Fascinating indeed.

2 months ago
EDWARD WALSH

Searching for Atticus finch in To kill a mockingbird

Professor Crespino is an excellent lecturer. I did expect his presentation to be about different parts of the book entitled, how to kill a mockingbird. rather it turned out to be a rather perceptive explanation of what influenced Harper Lee to write this book and the other book, to set a watchman. Fascinating indeed.

2 months ago
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