Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why Mockingbird and Harper Lee's new novel matter

Audrey had the opportunity to speak on Al-Jazeera America’s daily news discussion show Inside Story with Ray Suarez on February 9. The occasion for the segment was the announced release of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, due out in July 2015 from HarperCollins. Audrey was part of a panel, including Lee biographer Charles Shields and Los Angeles Times writer Carolyn Kellog. (We’d love to share the video, but, unfortunately, Al-Jazeera can’t make it publicly available due to its cable agreements.)

The new novel is a big story for a range of reasons, including the fact that Lee has been a literary recluse. To Kill a Mockingbird is a widely beloved text, so many, many readers are thrilled about this publishing event.

During the program, Ray asked Audrey about the fact that Mockingbird continues to be so widely read and taught. It’s a curious phenomenon. Why do some texts become canonical? Why do teachers continue to teach certain texts year after year, and in this case generation after generation? Perhaps it’s because Atticus represents, in some ways, the best of what we want to imagine about America: a just, courageous man willing to stand up despite public opprobrium.

But, let’s be clear. Atticus’s heroism isn’t so simple. Remember, he doesn’t volunteer to defend Tom Robinson; he’s unequivocal about the fact that he doesn’t want the case: “I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but [Judge] John Taylor pointed at me and said, `You’re It.’”
Mockingbird may offer us the attraction of a fairly simple story of good and bad. Tom Robinson is good; Bob Ewell is bad. Issues of race are usually a lot more complicated than that and can be a lot harder to navigate.

A skilled teacher can unpack many of the nuances in Mockingbird, but it isn’t easy. Why does Lee make a point of including Walter Cunningham in the group of men who set out to lynch Tom Robinson? How does Cunningham’s presence in this group and his willingness to be talked down from the brink by Scout relate to his social status as a proud man, caught up in the economic tangle of an entailment and the Depression? What are we to make of Lula, the combative African-American woman who confronts Calpurnia and makes clear that the Finch children are not welcome at the African-American church?

For a skilled teacher, this is a fascinating text full of complexity about race and many, many issues.

The bigger point, however, is that teaching literature is always hard. Whether we are teaching Mockingbird or any other text, it’s not easy to get students to make connections and care about the text. If we forget to ask ourselves why we are teaching these texts and why they matter, how can we expect our students to be able to do the same?

For us, the informational text mandate of the Common Core is the welcome reminder we need. When we think about what kinds of informational text connections we want to make with Mockingbird – for example, to the issue of lawyers willing to defend the detainees at Guantanamo – we make clear, for ourselves and our students, why this text still matters.

Meanwhile, we are super curious and excited about what Go Set a Watchman has to offer. How can we not be?

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