When Kristen Popham ’20 was in eighth grade, she performed in a theater production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” This required regular trips alone on a Metro train from her northern Virginia home into Washington, D.C., and back.
She relished the challenge of branching out on her own to take the stage with adult professional actors.
This led to other acting roles throughout her young life, and it fueled a passion to push her limits.
Now a William & Mary senior Government and French & Francophone Studies major, Popham is preparing to end her exceptional undergraduate term with a flourish that harkens back to her time as a middle school actor.
Popham is on the cusp of her first published work. With Government and American Studies Professor Simon Stow, Popham has co-authored a chapter for a book called “The Cold War and American Life,” which is scheduled for publication in 2021.
The topic? “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and how the condensed Reader’s Digest version of the famous Harper Lee novel was adapted to conform to American racial politics during the Cold War era.
The Reader’s Digest version of the book removed any content that depicted America as failing to make progress towards racial justice.
The major issue of concern in the piece written by Popham and Stow is race and America’s public self-presentation both home and abroad.
“What we found is that you can't divorce how they condensed ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, from the Cold War ideologies that Reader's Digest was trying to push forward at the time,” said Popham, who was also a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship this year. “So their strategic selections of what to omit were consistent with what they saw as American values to project during the Cold War.”
Popham’s love of “To Kill a Mockingbird” started in fifth grade when a teacher gave her a copy. She wrote a thesis as a high school senior comparing the Atticus Finch characters from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Lee’s other novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”
When Popham heard as a freshman that Stow was working on some projects about “To Kill a Mockingbird,” she paid the professor a visit. They talked for hours about the novel and eventually worked together on an independent study. She also started attending one of Stow’s senior seminars.
Stow was amazed by how exceptional Popham was. He has worked with students on other projects, but nothing like this.
“I’ve never had a student whose obsession with the text and whose approach to reading was close enough to my own for us to work on something together,” Stow said. “Kristen is unique in that regard.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” has been the vehicle that led Popham down some rewarding pathways and provided some interesting and new experiences.
She took up acting with professionals. She did a rare independent study as a freshman. She participated, and made great contributions, in a senior seminar as a first-year student.
“That was another example of being treated as an equal at a table where I was not the same age,” Popham said. “I was treated as an intellectual equal. Since then, [“To Kill a Mockingbird”] has kind of been the thing in my life that has allowed me to advance myself, challenge myself intellectually, and I'm still obsessed.”
At a café near campus, Popham and Stow recently discussed their “To Kill a Mockingbird” project. When asked how unusual it was for an undergraduate like Popham to work on a project like this, to be on the verge of publication, Stow turned to Popham and jokingly signaled for her to put her hands over her ears.
She happily obliged.
The professor, who has been at W&M for 17 years, leaned forward and softly said, “I have been lucky enough to have many wonderful students during my time at the College, but Kristen is in a class of her own.”