Harper Lee's 'Go Set a Watchman' Reveals Atticus Finch as a Racist

Harper Lee Go Set a Watchman Cover P 2015
Courtesy of HarperCollins

Harper Lee Go Set a Watchman Cover P 2015

Penetrating the tight embargo on Harper Lee's much-anticipated To Kill a Mockingbird follow-up, The New York Times secured a copy of Go Set a Watchman and leaked key plot points in a review by Michiko Kakutani.

The biggest revelation? Atticus, the saintly Atticus, the open-minded progressive hero of Mockingbird, is portrayed as a “bigot” who attended a Klan meeting and who says of the emerging civil rights movement (the book is set in the 1950s, some twenty years after Mockingbird), “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

The other big surprise is that the flashback sequences (which eventually became the basis for Mockingbird) reveal that in this version Tom Robinson is acquitted of raping a white woman instead of being found guilty as in Mockingbird.

Kakutani’s overall verdict is mixed. She calls it a “lumpy tale” that “lacks the lyricism of Mockingbird.” The reviewer writes that this story is about an older woman coming to terms with bigotry and small-mindedness in her father. 

Watchman reads like it was fueled by the alienation a native daughter — who, like Ms. Lee, moved away from small-town Alabama to New York City — might feel upon returning home," the review reads. "It seems to want to document the worst in Maycomb in terms of racial and class prejudice, the people’s enmity and hypocrisy and small-mindedness. At times, it also alarmingly suggests that the civil rights movement roiled things up, making people who used to trust each other’ now watch each other like hawks.

Comparing the two books, she concludes, “Mockingbird suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while Watchman asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus."

Earlier, the Wall Street Journal and London's Guardian excerpted the first chapter

HarperCollins issued a statement Friday evening addressing the reveal of Atticus' racism: "The question of Atticus's racism is one of the most important and critical elements in this novel, and it should be considered in the context of the book's broader moral themes," the publisher stated according to The Associated Press.

July 10, 4:40 pm: Revised to clarify the outcome of Tom Robinson's case in both Mockingbird and Watchman. 

July 10, 8:16 p.m.: Updated with the statement from HarperCollins.