Yes, of course, we were first in line for Go Set a Watchman, and we read the new Harper Lee novel eagerly and with great pleasure. We’ve also been following, mostly with delight, the coverage of the text, including Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic, Isabel Wilkerson and Joseph Crespino in The New York Times, and Hadley Freeman in The Guardian.
Instead of weighing in on the novel generally, which is territory well-covered already by so many others, we thought we’d suggest a few ways in which teachers might integrate Watchman into their teaching of Mockingbird.
One of the biggest storylines about Watchman has been the discussion of Atticus as a racist. The mainstream media has covered this development in full sensational mode as if Atticus’s views about race are wholly surprising.
Careful readers of Mockingbird, however, have a sense of how complex the racial politics of Lee’s Maycomb world already are and that the Atticus of that novel is no simple hero. After all, Atticus takes on the defense of Tom Robinson involuntarily, telling his brother “I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but [Judge] John Taylor pointed at me” (117). He is no civil rights activist: before, during, or after the trial. When Tom is shot in the prison yard for supposedly trying to escape, and shot seventeen times(!), Atticus responds with care for Tom’s family and for the African-American community, but he doesn’t initiate any legal appeal or investigation.
Teachers can help students unpack some of the complexity of Mockingbird’s Atticus. In our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, we offer an excerpt from David Margolick’s “To Attack a Lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird: An Iconoclast Takes Aim at a Hero.” The piece critically evaluates Atticus’s words and actions, analyzing the ways in which his actions are not necessarily so heroic. Moreover, the discussion allows students to think about whether it’s appropriate to judge someone from the past – whether a real-life or fictional character – based on our cultural or social standards today.
With a nuanced and critical understanding of Mockingbird’s Atticus, students will be all the more ready to think about the Atticus we encounter in Watchman who says that the “Negro population is backward” (242) and questions whether “Negroes [belong] in our schools and church and theaters?” (245). Is this Watchman Atticus really incommensurate with the Atticus in Mockingbird who defends Tom Robinson but is fully part and parcel of a community in which African Americans live as wholly second-class citizens in every way?
Brief excerpts from chapter 17 of Watchman, then, together with Margolick’s text, can help students make more sense out of Atticus, and the complex world of the segregated South. As you work this summer to adjust your teaching of Mockingbird post-Watchman, take a look at our Using Informational Text to Teach to Kill a Mockingbird for the Margolick piece and others that can help flesh out that complex world.
Let’s help our students be smarter and more critically thoughtful than most of the mainstream media; it’s not that hard and it’s important, good work!