This story was first published on The Reading Room.
For the first time in more than 50 years, and the second time ever, a new Harper Lee novel is being released. Also returning after half a century: her iconic character Atticus Finch, the paragon of virtue who was central to To Kill A Mockingbird.
But early reviews have noted a pretty significant change to Atticus Finch’s character this time around. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus was a virtuous lawyer who fought tirelessly to protect a black client accused of rape. In Go Set A Watchman, Atticus exhibits a different attitude.
The book isn’t due out until tomorrow, but the The New York Times and The Guardian have already posted reviews. The Times writes:
“Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, Go Set a Watchman (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter: ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’”
The Guardian’s review says that the new novel “shatters the traditional reading of Atticus as a saintly widowed single father whose views on race were decades ahead of his countrymen.”
Responses to the revelations have been varied, with some fans shocked and horrified, and others finding themselves conflicted.
Of course, Go Set A Watchman is not a typical sequel. It was written before To Kill A Mockingbird and can be seen, in part, as a prototype of the narrative that readers have known since 1960 (some scene-setting passages overlap exactly between the two books). In a sense, the two novels show two entirely different Atticus Finches.
Fans won’t have to wait long to see what they think of the new Atticus Finch—Go Set A Watchman comes out tomorrow.