Dr. Wayne Flynt: If you want to know what was on Harper Lee’s mind in 1956, read “Go Set a Watchman”

BUIES CREEK, North Carolina – Several years ago when the Library of Congress asked patrons to name the piece of literature that most affected their lives, they overwhelmingly listed two books: the Bible and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

That did not surprise Dr. Wayne Flynt, a longtime friend of the “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee and one of the world’s most notable scholars on Southern history, religion, and literature who delivered a lecture at Campbell University Monday, April 4, as part of Installation Week activities. His topic: “What Harper Lee and Southern Small Towns can Teach the World About Race Theology, History, Literature, Race and Community.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” had an initial press run of only 6,000 copies; but since it was first published 60 years ago, it was has sold over 40 million copies. A 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still sells over a million copies a year and is one of the most frequently required books read in schools.

“So frequently did English teachers use the novel in their classes, I’m convinced that if you were you attending schools in America in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is the single most unifying cultural icon in all of American culture,” Flynt said. “There is no other novel, no art, no piece of music, where we could all say ‘Yeah, we could have a conversation about that.’”
But if you want to know what was really on Harper Lee’s mind in 1956, read “Go Set a Watchman.”

Though Lee wrote that book several years before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it was not published and released until July 2015.

“The book [Harper Lee] wrote first, the book that was so compelling, the book that took over her life was ‘Go Set a Watchman,'” Flynt said. “But she was told America was not ready for this book when she wrote it.”

“Go Set a Watchman” is a story about Jean Louise – an older “Scout” – returning home after living in New York City for six years to confront her father, her fiancé, and her town about race.

“It is a story as old as the Bible — about generations of self-righteous and judgmental young people sitting in judgment of their parents who have to live in the reality of their culture, not in the reality of the young person’s culture where they get a different understanding of morality and wisdom,” Flynt said.

It is a story that Lee herself lived. She left Alabama to live in New York City. When was 23, she was reading about what was happening in Alabama when she decided to return home to face her father, Amassa Coleman Lee, editor of the Monroe Journal who often wrote segregationist rants, Flynt said. She didn’t want to write a memoir about her confrontation with her father, Flynt said, so she hid it in fiction – “Go Set a Watchman.”

Though she wrote the novel in 1956, it’s as timely as ever.

“Literature provides our best material for moral reflection. Think the Bible, think Proverbs or Job or the Gospels. In ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ we have a moral tale that provides perhaps America’s best reflection of our core values. Particularly in light of Charleston and public policy debates today, what could be more appropriate than a piece of literature that forces us to follow a moral arc of what happens in families, of people, and of nations?” Flynt said. “The conversation ‘Go Set a Watchman’ forces us to have in America in 2016 may well be as it was in 1960. What do you do with those who leave home?

“We leave home for a lot of reasons,” he added. “We leave home because little towns can be too confining, too parochial . . . and we may leave because nothing exciting happens. There are much more profound, deeply troubling reasons we leave as well.”

Flynt will speak again at Campbell Tuesday night, April 5, at 7 in Butler Chapel. During this time, he and Campbell President J. Bradley Creed will hold a public conversation about Southern literature, faith, and history.

Flynt is a graduate of Samford University and currently serves on the school’s Board of Overseers. Creed served as Samford’s provost before beginning his duties as Campbell’s president July 1, 2015.

Creed will be inaugurated as Campbell’s fifth president Friday, April 8, at 2 p.m. in the John W. Pope, Jr. Convocation Center.