The Internet has been abuzz this week over the release of Harper Lee’s "Go Set a Watchman" on Tuesday, and the buzz isn’t probably what people expected.
As the New York Times reported, "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 African-Americans and denounces desegregation efforts."
The response over the weekend to early reports about the book’s contents was "Say what?"
It also poses a challenge for schools, who have used "Mockingbird" as a staple of the curriculum for decades. Will Finch need to be portrayed as something less than heroic in new classes on Lee’s two books?
"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." (Jean Louise is the Scout character in "Mockingbird," but has left the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama and moved to New York in the new novel.)
"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, in an interview with the New York Times. "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?"
In "Watchman," a tearful Scout tells the man she worshiped growing up: "You’re the only person I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for."
But not all literary critics think the dethroning of Finch as a savior is necessarily bad. As the AP reported, some see value in a more complex, and flawed, version of Finch. 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," in an Associated Press report. "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."
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, Shields told the Associated Press. 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 to the Associated Press. "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."