‘Watchman’ raises questions about teaching ‘Mockingbird’ books

A sign earlier t his month welcoming book fans to Monroeville, Ala., the hometown of "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee.
A sign earlier t his month welcoming book fans to Monroeville, Ala., the hometown of "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee. AP

The new Harper Lee book, “Go Set a Watchman,” paints a different portrait of Atticus Finch than “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and educators say the new book might lead to revisions in how the classic is taught in schools

Most teachers haven’t yet seen the book, but reviews based on a few advance copies indicate that Atticus, at age 72, harbors bigoted views, especially regarding the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1952 that ordered public schools be desegregated.

Author Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville was abuzz over Tuesday’s release of her novel. The town is the model for Maycomb, the setting of both books. A full day of celebrations was planned, including readings, tours and a mint julep cocktail hour outside the old courthouse.

Amid the hoopla, there also was trepidation and disbelief that Atticus is portrayed as a racist 20 years later.

Mary Tucker, who is black, said she remembered going into a Monroeville dress shop and being told she could only try the dress on over her clothes, not next to her skin.

Tucker said an Atticus Finch who attends White Citizens’ Council meetings and defends segregation in “Watchman” would have been an accurate depiction of how many prominent Monroeville men felt at the time.

The book, written before “To Kill a Mockingbird” but not published until now, focuses on an adult Jean Louise, known as Scout, who leaves her home in New York to visit fictional Maycomb, Alabama. Lee wrote the book, which was found in a bank vault, in the 1950s while living in New York, and it’s believed to be autobiographical, with her father, A.C. Lee, the model for Atticus

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Atticus asks his grown daughter in “Watchman.”

To which a tearful Scout responds: “You’re the only person I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for.”

The new portrayal of Atticus, played in the film version of “Mockingbird” by Gregory Peck, punctures an idealized portrait of a lawyer who makes a principled stand amid racial prejudice.

“Watchman” means Texas schools might change their approaches to teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is a standard part of the English curriculum in the ninth and 10th grades

“I know all of our teachers who use ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in their classes are anxiously awaiting the release of the new book and will bet that they will read it right away,” said Tim Savoy, a spokesman for the Hays County Independent School District

“I would imagine you can’t help but incorporate the context of the new book into the teaching of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ because ‘Go Set a Watchman’ gives the reader more information about the characters,” he said. “It will make for very interesting class discussions about the complexity and depth of characters and the understanding that the human experience has many layers and is in constant evolution. Just when you think you know someone – like Atticus Finch based on the first book – you get surprised. It happens with people every day in good and bad ways.”

If “Mockingbird” sugarcoats racial divisions by depicting a white man as the model for justice in an unjust world, then “Watchman” may be like bitter medicine that more accurately reflects the times

“If Atticus Finch is not quite the plaster saint that he is in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ there could be something rich and fascinating about that,” Thomas Mallon, a novelist and critic, told The Associated Press. “The moral certainties in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are apparent from the first page, and in that sense, I don’t think it’s a great novel that deals with the tormenting questions of race in America, but maybe this new one is, if it’s more nuanced.”

Lee’s publisher, Harper, said there was never a discussion of toning down Atticus’ racist remarks to preserve his moral image

“Harper Lee wanted to have the novel published exactly as it was written, without editorial intervention,” Jonathan Burnham, the publisher of the HarperCollins imprint Harper, emailed The Associated Press. “By confronting these challenging and complex issues at the height of the civil rights movement, the young Harper Lee demonstrated an honesty and bravery that makes this work both a powerful document of its time and a compelling piece of literature.”

The Associated Press contributed