Here’s some bad news if you grew up idolizing Atticus Finch, the beloved protagonist of Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird: Your childhood hero is an awful, Klan-loving racist in Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, according to the New York Times review.
According to chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, Finch spent the 20-something years between Mockingbird, set in the 1930s, and Watchman transforming into a run-of-the-mill Southern bigot fond of saying things like, “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people” and “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
The depiction of Atticus in “Watchman” makes for disturbing reading, and for “Mockingbird” fans, it’s especially disorienting. Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father — who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion — has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion. How could the saintly Atticus — described in early sections of the book in much the same terms as he is in “Mockingbird” — suddenly emerge as a bigot? Suggestions about changing times and the polarizing effects of the civil rights movement seem insufficient when it comes to explaining such a radical change, and the reader, like Scout, cannot help but end feeling baffled and distressed.
Part of the reason for the drastic change in Finch’s behavior could be because, as the Times notes, Watchman was basically an early, rejected draft of what eventually became Mockingbird. Many have also questioned whether Lee, who is 89, would have published the book at all if she were in better health.