Reading Harper Lee: Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. By Claudia Durst Johnson. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2018. 183 p. Acid-free $39 (ISBN 978-1-4408-6127-7). Ebook Available (978-1-4408-6128-4), call for pricing.

Reading Harper Lee: Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Claudia Durst Johnson is meant to assist students studying the work of Harper Lee by providing context for her life and work and examining key topics such as race, class, and gender. It functions in some ways as an update to Johnson’s Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents (Greenwood, 1994) since it includes analysis of Go Set A Watchman. Rather than being a replacement for the 1994 reference work, it functions as a great complement for a student studying Harper Lee. While Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird provides numerous primary documents to help a student understand the historical context, Reading Harper Lee provides a more concise analysis of themes, which potentially makes it more accessible to a student new to literary criticism.

The first three chapters examine Harper Lee’s life, the historical context, and the literary structure and themes of both texts. The rest of the chapters examine key themes, including race relations, gender analysis, the impact of social class, the role of The South, Atticus Finch, and censorship. Each chapter has section headings written in bold that will help a student hone in on relevant aspects of the themes. Students should be able to use these sections to both further their understanding of what they are reading and to find inspiration for potential paper topics. The book also includes further readings at the end of each chapter, an in-depth chronology, notes on sources used, and an index.

Claudia Durst Johnson, the author of this resource, is a professor emeritus of English Literature at the University of Alabama and noted scholar of Harper Lee. Johnson’s research eventually led to her having a personal relationship with Harper Lee. While Reading Harper Lee is written to be very approachable for a student, Johnson’s knowledge of the author and the texts is evidenced throughout the work. For example, when examining the publishing history of Go Set a Watchman, she gives a good example of the impact of the “light editing” that was done: “unfortunately the ‘light edit’ did not catch a critical mistake in the key passage on page 265 where the word ‘conscious’ is used instead of ‘conscience.’ Even the part of the speech is faulty” (16). This example would hopefully make a student want to examine for herself what was published and why a mistake like that might be meaningful.

This reading guide is appropriate for public, high school, and college libraries. Though the primary audience for this text will be high school students and undergraduates, the inclusion of Go Set a Watchman will increase the appeal for any literary scholar or student interested in American literature. Since the work around examining the impact of Go Set a Watchman is still in the nascent stage, the effort here to begin to explain its publishing history and to explore how it works with and against To Kill a Mockingbird will be valuable, especially if used with the further readings and notes on sources. It makes one interested to see how future literary scholars will approach these two texts.—Arianne A. Hartsell-Gundy, Librarian for Literature and Theater Studies, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina


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