Professor talks Southern history and Atticus Finch in Masterclass

From Issue 5

Students recently had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Joseph Crespino speak as a part of the ongoing “Masterclass” series at Jackson Prep. Dr. Crespino is the Jimmy Carter Professor of History at Emory University and author of three books dealing with Southern history.

A native of Macon, Mississippi, Dr. Crespino says that growing up in the South with the legacy of racial segregation was influential in his lifelong pursuit of studying Southern history. His visit was part of Prep’s series of Masterclass lectures, arranged by Prep’s librarian, Ms. Norma Cox.

Dr. Crespino never planned on becoming a historian, however. While working on his honors thesis at Northwestern University, Dr. Crespino began researching events of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s Mississippi. “I was captivated,” he says. “While my friends were winding down in their senior years, I was spending all this time researching for this project.” Although he had always intended to become a lawyer after his graduate studies, Dr. Crespino discovered a love for teaching while working in the Mississippi Teachers Corps, a program that pairs teachers with understaffed schools often in rural parts of the state. He went on to pursue graduate studies at the University of Mississippi and received his doctorate from Stanford University.

Sentry staff talks to Dr. Crespino about his life and career. Photo by Lily Flowers.

Dr. Crespino has had a fascination with To Kill a Mockingbird ever since being reintroduced to it by his brother. “This book plays such a unique role in our culture,” he says. “It’s one of the first serious novels we assign to our young audiences because of the racial themes it introduces with characters like Atticus Finch.” Dr. Crespino’s most recent book, Atticus Finch: The Biography—Harper Lee, Her Father, and the Making of an American Icon, focuses on the connections between author Harper Lee’s surroundings and works, as well as the similarities between her father and the character Atticus Finch.

 To do this, Dr. Crispino had an idea: present the book as a biography of the fictional character Atticus Finch. Although the fact that no one had ever done such a “biography” before meant that he no template to go on, Dr. Crespino took comfort from the fact that he could pursue his interests with the freedom he wanted. “No there is no right way to write a biography of a fictional character…but there is no wrong way to do it either.”

Joseph Watts
Dr. Joseph Crespino’s book on Atticus Finch on display in the school library.

The Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s posthumously published Go Set a Watchman is, at face value, a very different one from the selfless “defender of the downtrodden” found in To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the main goals of Dr. Crespino’s book is to bridge this gap and to reconcile the two characters to one person in the context of Harper Lee’s life. Upon being asked who in her life was the model for the character of Atticus, Lee would respond that the answer was in some ways her own father. While researching for the book, Dr. Crespino came upon a treasure trove of weekly editorials published by Lee’s father in the local newspaper over a number of years. When compared to Lee’s own political writing at the time, her father’s writing shows some of the differences the two might have had politically, a possible explanation for the cynical, segregationist Atticus of Go Set a Watchman. “Comparing these editorials,” Dr. Crespino says, “we were able to recreate the conversations they would have been having at their dinner table.”

In addition to speaking to a group of students during the lunch period, Dr. Crespino spent much of the day talking to students in the A.P. History classes. “I found it interesting that so much of his knowledge could be devoted to understanding a fictional character,” says junior Jack Baker. “Sometimes there’s more to characters (and people) than it seems at first,” says junior Lauren Noe. “In order to know someone like Atticus Finch you have to look at them from multiple perspectives.”

Dr. Crespino lives in Decatur, Georgia, with his wife, singer and musician Caroline Herring, and their two children.