The novel, entitled “Go Set a Watchman,” was written before “Mockingbird” but takes place after the events of that book when Scout Finch is an adult.
The panel was moderated by Daniel Wallace, an author and the director of UNC’s creative writing program.
The panelists included Joe Flora, professor emeritus of UNC’s Department of English and Comparative Literature; Patrick Horn, associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South; Anna Jean Mayhew, author of “The Dry Grass of August”; and Christopher Brook, legal director of the N.C. American Civil Liberties Union.
“I can get passionate about this novel,” Flora said of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “It is so contemporary on every front.”
Flora said Lee’s novel deals with racial issues in a way that was ahead of its time. He said he was reminded of racial tensions in American when rereading the book recently.
“I thought, ‘We just lived through this,’” he said.
But the novel still prioritizes a primarily white perspective, Horn said.
“The black characters remain at the periphery of the novel,” he said. “I came to think of this book as a marvelous snapshot of a particular kind of Southern culture.”
Part of the controversy surrounding the book concerns how Atticus Finch, a lawyer who fought against the wrongful conviction of a black man in “Mockingbird,” is portrayed as racist in “Go Set a Watchman.”
“Reviews have suggested that this book will change the way we look at ‘Mockingbird’ forever,” Wallace said.
Susan Maguire, the library’s readers’ services coordinator, said she was both excited and apprehensive about the book’s release.
“What if Atticus Finch turns out not to be the dreamboat lawyer I thought he was?” she said.
Mayhew said there are small hints in “Mockingbird” suggesting that Atticus Finch is not quite as liberal and tolerant as he seems otherwise.
“I don’t want to give up my dream of Atticus Finch being the perfect father we all wished we had,” she said.
Brook agreed and said he thought Atticus Finch being racist would be a more complex exploration of race than was found in “Mockingbird.”
“Mockingbird” largely portrays racism as something occurring among lower-class white people, not educated or upper-middle class white people like Atticus Finch and his family, Brook said.
The book has sparked controversy with the timing of its release. Panelists said Lee is in ill health and had questions as to whether she was involved in the decision to publish the book.
“I know that I’m not going to read the book,” Wallace said. “I don’t think she wanted this published.”
But panelists agreed that “Mockingbird” and its influence will live on regardless of the quality of “Watchman.”
“It’s not just the coming-of-age story of one person; it’s the coming-of-age for a lot of people,” Wallace said. “It’s the coming-of-age for a society, a culture.”