The fall 2016 issue of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), features two articles by Mary Grabar, Resident Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI).  The articles focus on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).  Made into a hit movie starring Gregory Peck in 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird  is considered to be the most widely read novel by American high school students. Since 1960, the novel has never gone out of print; its total sales were estimated in 2015 to be 40 million copies.

The novel, which takes place in small-town Alabama in the 1930s, centers on attorney Atticus Finch’s brave, but unsuccessful, defense of a black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. The story is told from the point of view of Finch’s young daughter, nicknamed “Scout,” and has been widely regarded as a classic coming-of-age story about racial justice.

Attention was refocused on author Harper Lee after the original manuscript for the novel, titled Go Set a Watchman, was said to have been found and was published in 2015. Set in the same town 20 years later, as the civil rights movement is getting underway, it is told by the same narrator as a young woman. Watchman drew wide criticism for what many saw as Atticus Finch’s segregationist and racist views.  Lee died in February 2016.

The fall 2016 issue of Academic Questions heeds the advice of the French-born American historian and “legendary scholar” Jacques Barzun in that it pays particular attention to education preparatory to college. Barzun served on NAS’s advisory committee from its inception in the 1980s until his death at age 104 in 2012.  About half of the issue is dedicated to K-12 subjects, such as testing and writing, and half to the favorite high school novel. Scholars from the fields of literature, law, government, and political science were invited to weigh in on such questions as: why they thought the novel had achieved canonical status in the teaching profession and was so well loved by students, and whether the status was deserved: how they would assess it as a work of literature, or a work of historical, social, or legal importance; their experiences in teaching the novel; and the effect of Watchman on Lee’s reputation.

In her contribution to the forum, “Lee’s Dilemma,” Mary Grabar discussed the writing process and the common artistic mistakes that Lee made. The challenge of presenting a changing South of the 1950s from the Southern moderate’s perspective proved to be too great for the beginning writer. The problem was solved by recasting the point-of-view and setting: that of a child in the 1930s. Grabar also considers interpretations of the novel in the intervening years and shows how they skirt key details in Finch’s important closing argument. In her other article, “Show Trial: To Kill a Mockingbird on Stage,” Grabar investigated the politicization of Mockingbird, from its movie version to the recent Syracuse Stage production.

Mary Grabar earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia in 2002 and taught college English for 20 years. She writes about education and current events regularly, is under contract with Northern Illinois University Press for the book, “George S. Schuyler: America’s First Black Conservative Intellectual,” and has had poetry and short stories published in literary journals.

“I enjoyed revisiting this charming novel that has captured the imagination of Americans for over 50 years,” she said. “It was quite interesting to discover how movies, teaching guides, classroom lessons, reviews, and stage performances have altered the interpretation of the novel. To the contrary of received wisdom, Atticus Finch is not a crusading social justice warrior, but a champion of the founding fathers’ ideas about equality. Harper Lee was advocating a constitutional and orderly method of integration while remaining faithful to the novelist’s task of presenting life realistically, in her case, ‘small-town, middle-class life.’ A careful re-reading of the novel is warranted.” The National Association of Scholars is a non-profit organization whose members are committed to advancing academic freedom and maintaining academic standards.