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July 23, 2015

'Watchman' prompts new questions for teaching 'Mockingbird'

Harper Lee's new book depicts the iconic Atticus Finch as a racist

The revelation of Atticus Finch as a white supremacist in Harper Lee's "Go Set A Watchman" quickly transformed perceptions of the "To Kill A Mockingbird" hero, long viewed as a standard-bearer of justice and integrity. 

But the new book also could reshape the way the classic novel is taught to future generations.

“Watchman” prompts questions that must be confronted when teaching “Mockingbird,” according to education professionals and literature experts interviewed by PhillyVoice. But they doubted “Mockingbird” will be knocked from the canon of high school literature.

“'Mockingbird' has stood alone for 55 years,” said Josh Rothstein, an English teacher in Montgomery County's Colonial School District. “We’ve been left to wonder — what has happened to Jean Louise? What happened to Atticus?

“I think you have to think of them as separate books that have the same DNA. I don’t think you can think of them as novel and sequel. I think they’re related. ...” – Laura Pattillo, Saint Joseph’s University professor

“Now that we’re given an answer, our big question is, ‘What do we do about it?’ I think we’re collectively trying to figure it out. Ultimately, I think it will be left to each individual teacher, just as always.”

Finch, a white Alabama lawyer, represented a black man accused of raping a white girl during the 1930s in “Mockingbird.” He stood against societal norms, seemingly on the basis of morality. That stance helped the book become a high school staple.

“Watchman” calls the long-established moral themes of “Mockingbird” into question. Set in the 1950s, Finch has joined a white Citizen’s Council and rejected the work of the NAACP. His grown daughter, Jean Louise, struggles with her father’s segregationist viewpoints after returning home from New York.

The new book, which hit stores last Tuesday, already has sold more than 1.1 million copies, jumping to No. 1 on every major book retailer’s bestseller list and stirring a riveting conversation about Finch. As educators begin flipping through “Watchman,” that conversation inevitably will shift to the classroom.

Rothstein taught “Mockingbird” for five years previously in the School District of Philadelphia. He approached the text thematically, asking students to explore the sacrifices of going against societal norms. He has not yet read “Watchman,” but said it seemingly adds a new layer to that discussion.

People cling to moral standards, Rothstein said. But what happens when our moral icons, like Finch, are revealed to be as immoral as everyone else? What value do their teachings hold?

“Can you negate what he said in the past because of who he is now?” Rothstein asked. “As human beings, we’re always sort of wrestling with this. Because somebody says something true — but they’re not a moral person — does that negate the thing they said that was true?”


Time constraints will prevent most schools from teaching both “Mockingbird” and “Watchman,” educators said. But “Watchman” could be assigned as an outside reading project or excerpts could be inserted into the “Mockingbird” curriculum.

Laura Pattillo, a Saint Joseph’s University professor with a background in Southern literature, cautioned against viewing — or teaching — “Watchman” as a sequel to “Mockingbird.”

She pointed to the myriad questions surrounding the new book’s release, saying “Watchman” likely is an earlier draft of “Mockingbird” — not a separate novel. Authors are known to heavily revise their original plotlines and characters, sometimes to the extent that the original concept becomes unrecognizable.

“I think you have to think of them as separate books that have the same DNA,” said Pattillo, who has not yet read the new book. “I don’t think you can think of them as novel and sequel. I think they’re related. They’re siblings or cousins, but they’re not sequels.”

Therefore, Patillo said, the revelations in “Watchman” should not cause readers to view “Mockingbird” — or Finch’s character — as false. Yet, she said, “Watchman” could prompt a more critical view of Finch, saying his imperfections have been covered by actor Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the 1962 film.

“People have idealized Atticus Finch,” Pattillo said. “Perfect people don’t exist in the real world. If perfect people exist in books, then they’re not very interesting characters.”

"Go Set A Watchman" by Harper Lee, seen in this August 2007 file photo, has sold more than 1.1 million copies since its release last Tuesday. (Rob Carr, File / AP)

The release of “Watchman” is not the first time the celebrated moral lessons of “Mockingbird” have been questioned.

The late Monroe Freedman, a Hofstra Law School professor, took aim at the morality of Finch, calling him a complicit racist in a 1992 article published in the Legal Times. Freedman noted Finch does not protest that blacks are relegated to the back of the courtroom and dismisses the Ku Klux Klan as a “political organization more than anything else.”


Joe Forsyth, a teacher at a South Philadelphia charter school, said he previously avoided painting Finch as a heroic icon to his students, citing similar passages that question Finch’s views on race. Forsyth instead uses Finch to highlight the difference between bigoted and institutional racism.

“There’s a term ‘heroification,’ where characters from our history, from our past, are put on pedestals and are therefore put off from any meaningful analysis,” said Forsyth, a member of the Philadelphia Writing Project, a network of 700 teaching consultants who examine literacy, writing and teaching. “They no longer become human. It’s hard to do anything but say, ‘Oh, they’re great,’ and then the conversation stops instead of jumping into a longer conversation.”

Instead, Forsyth asks his students to examine the concept of archetypes — characters that fit a literary mold but do not necessarily show the most honest depiction of society.

“It’s challenging because adults find difficulty reading a text critically and saying, ‘What did this text get right and where are its failings?’” said Forsyth, who is not sure whether he'll read "Watchman." “It has to be taught to teenagers and you have to be patient with it.”

Yet, Miles Orvell, an English professor at Temple University, wondered whether the complexities brought by “Watchman” could spark greater interest in examining Harper Lee at the collegiate level. Orvell does not know any professors who teach “Mockingbird.”

Orvell found “Watchman” to be a more sophisticated book, saying it contains complexities, wit and a lively prose he fails to see in “Mockingbird.” The new novel — written before Lee published “Mockingbird” in 1960 — also raises questions about Lee’s initial conception of Finch, a discussion he found intriguing.

“You can still teach 'Mockingbird' on its own terms as a moral story, but if I was teaching the two books together, I would ask, ‘Why did she change the book when she wrote 'Mockingbird?’” Orvell said. “Why did she simplify it?”

Orvell wondered whether Lee reshaped her story to gain the approval of an editor seeking a moralistic tale bestowing the liberal values of the 1950s to an earlier period.

“The question has been raised — should she even have published this book and thereby complicated things?” Orvell said. “In my opinion, yeah, because I like the fact that it’s more complicated now. It makes me more comfortable with 'To Kill A Mockingbird' to know that Harper Lee had written this earlier novel.

"The larger context of the earlier novel, to me, makes the 'Mockingbird' story even more interesting.”