Academics welcome Go Set a Watchman and its the more complex, 'realistic' hero from To Kill a Mockingbird

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
July 13, 2015 09:30 PM
Everett

For the millions of readers who made To Kill A Mockingbird a best-selling classic – not to mention all those trendy parents who named their baby boys Atticus – the struggle is on to reconcile the beloved and upright moral beacon of Harper Lee‘s original with the bigoted Atticus Finch of her new release.

But literary experts and academics tell PEOPLE that they welcome the new take on Atticus and say his rendering in Go Set A Watchman gives readers – especially teachers in the thousands of middle and high schools where To Kill a Mockingbird is faithfully taught each year – a timely excuse to reexamine how social change happens.

And, in an era of modern racial trauma – from Ferguson to Baltimore to Charleston and the debate over the Confederate flag – the emergence of this “new” Atticus symbolizes how many racial questions and emotions remain unresolved in America.

“What an incredible moment to be forced to go back and reevaluate Atticus Finch, the one character who, for so many, has been beyond reproach,” says Dan Sigward of the nonprofit organization Facing History and Ourselves, whose new Teaching Mockingbird guide for schools was released last year.

“It’s important to teach the book – both Mockingbird and now Watchman – in a way that opens the door to students being more critical thinkers. If anything, the revelations about Atticus in the new book bring us a more realistic, complex and sophisticated analysis of morality and the choices people make in difficult times.”

Sigward adds that Atticus was, perhaps, given more of a pass than he really deserved, even in Mockingbird. “There’s an argument to be made that he was trading in stereotypes about poor white people and not necessarily the paragon of pure virtue a lot of people see him as,” he explains.

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat, editor of Reimagining To Kill a Mockingbird: Family, Community, and the Possibility of Equal Justice under Law, also welcomes the new Atticus as “a kind of wake-up call that the struggle for rights is two steps forward, one step back. And it’s a struggle that requires collective action, not just individual, idealized heroes.”

As for those Mockingbird fans who have taken to social media to say they feel betrayed by Atticus and don’t even want to read the new book, Sarat says, “If anything this has made me more interested in reading the new book. Atticus turns out to be much more interesting that he’s been made out to be before.”

For documentary filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy, whose 2012 Hey Boo about the beloved novel has been recently updated to include the new book, which she was permitted to read in full ahead of its Tuesday release, the early publication of its first chapter did the book a disservice.

“Yes, Atticus says racist things [in that first chapter] … and I know people are very upset about this. But this is a four-sentence snapshot, not the whole story,” Murphy says. “What happens as you read on is that Scout has a conversation with Uncle Jack, who says ‘Put your fists down, hold on and really think … when someone gets beaten up or there’s a bombing or something else where the law’s involved, who’s going to be in there upholding the law? Your father.’ ”

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So take heart, Atticus fans. “The Atticus of Mockingbird – the tolerating, accepting father – is absolutely in evidence at the end of Go Set a Watchman,” Murphy continues.

And did this new book capture her heart quite the way Lee’s first did for so many readers over more than five decades?

To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece, plain and simple. This is a different kind of read – an early work that was not edited. But reading it in a historic way, seeing the germs, the beginnings of To Kill a Mockingbird is absolutely fascinating,” Murphy says.

“And it’s the beginning of a writer and a great American novel. How could you not want to read that? People may not like the plot, but I think it’s of great value.”

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