Harper Lee's New Novel Shows a Darker, Racist Atticus Finch

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 13, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Harper Lee's modern classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, inspired the careers of more than a few lawyers. Atticus Finch, the novel's moral center, stood for many as the model of a justice and honor, defending the poor, needy and oppressed against injustice. Atticus became so popular among lawyers that the Alabama state bar even erected a monument in his honor.

That vision of Atticus is about to be dramatically altered. Tomorrow, Harper Lee's second novel comes out, more than 50 years after Mockingbird. The new book, Go Set a Watchman, deals again with Scout, Atticus and Maycomb, Alabama, but 20 years later -- and it shows Atticus Finch not as a lover of justice but as a racist and his daughter's major foil. It is, to put it mildly, a shocking redefinition of the beloved character.

A Quick Refresher

For those who need a refresher, here's a quick review. Lee's first, and until now, only, novel told the tale of young Jean Louise "Scout" Finch coming of age in the segregated South and grappling with the dark realities and injustices of adult life. Much of the plot centered on the trial of Tom Robinson, a young black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is a local lawyer assigned to defend Robinson when most of the town would prefer a quick judicial lynching.

In "Mockingbird," Atticus is unambiguously good. When Scout asks why he is defending Robinson, Atticus's reason is that "I do my best to love everybody." Throughout the novel, Atticus directly takes on racism and his community's racist views, teaching his children (and the reader!) to look beyond local bigotries and towards justice and fairness. If ever there was a moral compass, it was Atticus Finch.

Not the Atticus You Remember

That Atticus is no more. According to previews of the bood, in Watchman, Atticus is an open racist. The once great lawyer now denounces the Supreme Court for desegregation and attends a Klan rally. This new Atticus asks his progressive daughter, "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?"

This is no minor change. Scout, now just Jean Louise, is as shocked and frustrated by her father's racism as the reader will be. The character, matching Harper Lee's own experience, has moved off to New York City. She returns to the deep South, attempting to grapple with the differences between the work she has come to know and the deep-seated prejudices of Maycomb. Jean Louise, like the reader, is shocked by the small mindedness of her once gentle father.

This is, In Fact, the First Atticus

For those interested in the literary history behind Atticus, it's worth noting that this is the first version of Atticus. Go Set a Watchman was Lee's first novel. When she submitted it for publication, her editor seized on Jean Louise's flashbacks to her childhood, asking Lee to rewrite it with that child's journey at the center. That rewriting became To Kill a Mockingbird, and "Go Set a Watchman" was forgotten. If Atticus was a someone one-dimensional hero, Lee certainly understood that there was a more complex (d)evolution in store for him.

What caused Atticus's shift between the two books? We'll have to wait until tomorrow to see. The book comes out Tuesday, July 14th.

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