With all the debate brewing over the origins of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman, the biggest bombshell turned out to be an explosive character revelation that no one saw coming.
Atticus Finch, the crusading lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose principled fight against racism and inequality inspired generations of readers, is depicted in Watchman as an aging racist who once attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, holds negative views about blacks and denounces desegregation efforts.
“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Atticus asks his grown daughter, Jean Louise, in Watchman. The stunning revelation will probably alter readers’ view of Lee’s cherished first novel and could reshape her legacy, which until now has hinged entirely on the outsize success of her 1960 novel Mockingbird, a beloved book that has sold more than 40 million copies globally and occupies a unique place in our literary culture.
It is also certain to spur debate about the character of Atticus, and his moral integrity in Mockingbird — a staple of high school curriculums around the country — that made him a cultural icon whose influence transcended literature, inspiring generations of lawyers, teachers and social workers.
“Whether you’ve read the novel or seen the film, there’s this image you have of Atticus as a hero, and this brings him down a peg,” said Adam Bergstein, a high school English teacher in New York who teaches Mockingbird to 10th-graders. “How do you take this guy who everybody looked up to for the last 50-plus years, and now he’s a more flawed individual?” The new version of Atticus, 72, suffering from arthritis and stubbornly resistant to social change, stands in sharp contrast to the gentle scholar in Mockingbird, who tells Scout (Jean Louise), when explaining why he has gone out on a limb to defend a black man, that “I do my best to love everybody.”
In Watchman, which comes out Tuesday, Atticus chides Scout for her idealistic views about racial equality: “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” The revelation comes at a moment when issues of racism, inequality and the persecution of minorities in the United States are again at the forefront of the news. Last week, South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from its State House grounds, after days of emotional debate. Protests have erupted around the country after police shootings of unarmed black men.
Watchman, which was completed in 1957, is landing in the middle of the debate, like a literary artifact out of a time capsule from a period when the country was divided over many of the same issues.
“We could turn this into a plus in our national conversation about racism and the Confederate flag. It turns out that Atticus is no saint, as none of us are, but a man with prejudices,” said Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Some writers and literary critics see added value in a more complex, and flawed, version of Atticus. If Mockingbird sugarcoats racial divisions by depicting a white man as the model for justice in an unjust world, then Watchman may be like bitter medicine that more accurately reflects the times.
“If Atticus Finch is not quite the plaster saint that he is in To Kill a Mockingbird, there could be something rich and fascinating about that,” said Thomas Mallon, a novelist and critic, who had read only the published excerpt from Watchman. “The moral certainties in To Kill a Mockingbird are apparent from the first page, and in that sense, I don’t think it’s a great novel that deals with the tormenting questions of race in America, but maybe this new one is, if it’s more nuanced.” It is unclear why Lee set aside Watchman — a blunt and unsparing look at a young woman’s disillusionment at the racism that permeates her hometown and her family — to write Mockingbird, a more palatable coming-of-age tale. Narrated by a charming and observant child, Mockingbird features characters that fall neatly into camps of heroes and villains; Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus in the 1962 film is an enduring symbol of a righteous lawyer and model parent.
Lee wrote the novel in the mid-1950s, when, like Jean Louise, she was living in New York and occasionally traveling home to Alabama to visit her aging father, the lawyer A.C. Lee, who is commonly cited as the model for Atticus in Mockingbird. In letters she wrote at the time to a friend in New York, she describes feeling unmoored by his physical decline and impending death (“I found myself staring at his handsome old face, and a sudden wave of panic flashed through me.”)
She also recounts feeling like an outsider in her hometown because of her stance on civil rights: “I don’t trust myself to keep my mouth shut if I feel moved to express myself, thereon it will get out all over Monroeville that I am a member of the NAACP, which, God forbid. They already suspect this to be a fact anyway.”
While A.C. Lee was moderate by the standards of the times, he supported states’ rights and held segregationist views, according to Shields. Later, after the publication of Mockingbird in 1960, his views softened, and he started campaigning for redistricting in the county to protect disenfranchised black voters, Shields said.
As the first reviews of the novel were published Friday, some Mockingbird fans were so disheartened by the revelation that they said they were reluctant to read the new book. On Twitter, Jamie Harding, who lives in Alabama, likened learning out about Atticus’ dark side to “finding out Santa Claus beats his reindeer.” Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, said there was never a discussion of toning down Atticus’ racist remarks to preserve his moral image.
“Harper Lee wanted to have the novel published exactly as it was written, without editorial intervention,” Jonathan Burnham, the publisher of the HarperCollins imprint Harper, wrote in an email message. “By confronting these challenging and complex issues at the height of the civil rights movement, the young Harper Lee demonstrated an honesty and bravery that makes this work both a powerful document of its time and a compelling piece of literature.”
Still, the character of Atticus had an impact that transcended literature in many ways, and many will mourn the loss of a cultural icon. In the past decade or so, nearly 6,700 babies were named Atticus, according to the Social Security name database.
Karla FC Holloway, a professor of English and law at Duke University who teaches a class on law, race and literature, said the new version of Atticus may lead people to reread Mockingbird more closely.
“It will force an interesting conversation about — if this is really Atticus — what have our own desires done to the character, and what is the literary truth?” Holloway said. “This is who we want to be as a country, but this is not who Atticus was.”