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World Turns to Decatur to Understand Southern Lit, “Watchman”

Watchman by Harper Lee

With the highly anticipated arrival earlier this week of Harper Lee’s second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” the issues raised by its publication have trascended the literary world and fueled great debate in mainstream America.

Amid this national conversation over the follow-up “To Kill a Mockingbird,” one of the country’s most beloved works of literature, Decatur has emerged as the epicenter for understanding and context of Southern literature.

On Sunday in The Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize winner, former U.S. poet laureate and 2012 AJC DBF keynote speaker Natasha Tretheway discussed how “Watchman” is compelling in its timeliness” as it takes place shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision integrating public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. The Emory professor observes how state governments in Georgia and South Carolina resurrected the symbol of the Confederate battle flag during a time of “white Southern anxiety.”

She writes, “And herein lies the paradox at the heart of ‘Watchman’ that many white Americans still cannot comprehend: that one can at once believe in the ideal of ‘justice for all’—as Atticus once purported to—and yet maintain a deeply ingrained and unexamined notion of racial difference now based in culture as opposed to biology, a milder yet novel version of white supremacy manifest in, for example, racial profiling, unfair and predatory lending practices, disparate incarceration rates, residential and school segregation, discriminatory employment practices and medical racism.”

On Thursday, another Emory University professor and DBF veteran, Joe Crespino, published an op-ed in The New York Times, providing further context for the unexpected transformation of Atticus Finch’s character from a paragon of virtue to an “embittered racist.” Crespino likened Finch’s evolution to that of former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who, as the governor of the state in the 1940s advocated for the repeal of the poll tax (a Jim Crow law used to oppress African-Americans) and called in the FBI to investigate a lynching.

Crespino is the author of “Strom Thurmond’s America” and is at work on a study of Finch and how “the enduring influence of the novel have both reflected and reshaped American arguments over race and morality in the modern South and nation,” according to his Emory bio.