In a class called Writing Across The Disciplines, a required course to complete my major in English (with an emphasis is writing), I was assigned to conduct an interview with a History professor then write an essay about the experience and what was gleaned from dabbling in the discourse of a “soft” science. Luckily, I had the opportunity to meet and interview a teacher whose focus was teaching his students how to write about History.
When I asked him what he believed to be the most important lesson any student of History must learn, he said, One must avoid imposing today’s sensibilities on yesterday’s events. The good professor wasn’t at all surprised by the fact that I paused — at length — and sat there frowning at my notebook. I left the interview with enough material to write five pages for that assignment. I left that interview and went straight to my advisor ready to beg and bribe, if necessary, in order to change my minor to History. Thank you, Professor.
Years later I can say with confidence that I’ve since learned other important lessons from both academic and leisurely study: One must avoid imposing literary characters’ sensibilities on the author, as well as avoid dismissing the impact (and importance) of a character who possesses a world view unpopular by today’s standards.
Both of these lessons are stamped upon my mind in bold caps today, have been since I read the first review of Go Set A Watchman. Admittedly, those bold caps were not an immediate reaction. My immediate reaction was a shrill shout DID NO ONE REALLY READ TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? EVER?
Outrage did not drive me to go purchase a copy of Go Set A Watchman. Instead I have been inspired to revisit Lee’s first publication, in fact, I plan on a close reading while simultaneously researching original interviews published in the 60s. Why? Well, in part, I want to write a very thorough essay about this novel’s characters, POV, social statements (intentional and otherwise), etc. Why? Because, I suppose my outrage stems from the shock experienced when evidence was put forth that so many readers kind of missed the point(s) made within Lee’s original tale.
In my search for original reviews I came across TIME’s article by Dan Kedmey, February 3, 2015 in which the original review, entitled “About Life and Little Girls” is quoted (although the original reviewer is not named here). I’ll leave with an excerpt:
The novel is an account of an awakening to good and evil, and a faint catechistic flavor may have been inevitable. But it is faint indeed; Novelist Lee‘s prose has an edge that cuts through cant, and she teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life. (A notable one: “Naming people after Confederate generals makes slow steady drinkers.”)
One thought on “Avoid Imposing Today’s Sensibilities On Yesterday’s Events: A Blog Post About Close Reading To Kill A Mockingbird”
Kristina Van Hoose
That is an excellent quote from your professor.
I haven’t heard much about Go Set a Watchman, but what I have heard hasn’t made sense in regards to Atticus’ characterization. I find that the more times I read TKAM, the more I learn about it.
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