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In this talk, Joseph Crespino argues that whatever you think about Go Set a Watchman as a novel, it is fascinating as a historical document.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.
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
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?”