2018 Preston Lecturer: Writer and Historian Joseph Crespino
2018 Preston Lecturer: Writer and Historian Joseph Crespino

By Chelsea Edgar

Emory University professor and historian Joseph Crespino, this year's Preston Lecturer, has long been fascinated by Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. But readers of Lee's posthumously published novel, Go Set a Watchman, released in 2015, will notice a dramatic change in the way Atticus is depicted — not as a champion of civil rights, but as an older man whose values and beliefs reflect the mores of the Old South. These conflicting representations were the subject of Crespino's talk at Hotchkiss, "Searching for Atticus Finch," which he gave in Walker Auditorium on Feb. 22.

Crespino specializes in the 20th-century United States, with expertise in the political history of post-World War II America. His published work has examined the intersections of region, race, and religion in American politics in the second half of the 20th century. In his view, struggles over race and modernization in the American South should be viewed not as outlying conflicts, but as part of a broader series of transformations in national political life. His upcoming book, Atticus Finch: The Biography, explores the hero of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and how the figure of Atticus and the enduring influence of the novel have both reflected and shaped American arguments over race and morality in the modern South and nation.

In his address to students and faculty in Walker, Crespino traced the roots of Atticus Finch to Harper Lee's father, A.C. Lee, a lawyer and editor of the Monroe Journal, Lee's hometown paper. A.C. Lee embodied both sides of Atticus Finch — the more progressive, idealistic version in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the traditional, change-resistant older man in Go Set a Watchman. Crespino explained that even though Watchman, told primarily from the point of view of a grown-up Scout, takes place chronologically after Mockingbird, Lee started working on it before she began writing Mockingbird. He explored the significance of both works in the context of the political climate in Alabama in the late 1950s, as well as Lee's own political views and her intended audiences for each novel.

Instructor in History Rory Hart, who invited Crespino to Hotchkiss, said he chose Crespino because he thought his work would resonate with students.

"I think that Joe's upcoming book is an excellent model of the type of interdisciplinary work that our humanities curriculum is built upon," said Hart. "And I thought his historical analysis of the construction of Atticus Finch from Harper Lee's relationship with her father and her experiences in the early civil rights movement would strike a chord with our students."

Before his talk on Thursday evening, Crespino visited U.S. history classes, including Hart's AP U.S. History class. He spoke with students about his research and how his work as a historian informs his perspective on the ongoing controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments in the South. Upper mid Szilveszter Palvolgyi asked what led Crespino to pursue the path of an academic historian.

"One of the reasons I was interested in history was that I came from a place that seemed to be in the clutches of history — a small town in rural Mississippi where the legacy of racial segregation was still very much present," Crespino said. "So I became interested in what it was that set this place on its ear."

The Preston Lecture is organized by the Humanities and Social Sciences Department and funded by the Preston Speakers Fund, established in 1991 in memory of Ted Preston '79. Tether Preston '18, Ted Preston's niece, said, "For my family, this lecture was another way to remember my uncle. Throughout Hotchkiss and college, history was his favorite subject. The lecture was founded to reflect his love for his subject."

Said Hart, "I hope that this talk will inspire students to learn more about the civil rights movement and the complex politics that it generated in the American South and across the nation."