Kit Steinkellner
July 12, 2015 8:20 am

If you felt the ground shake a little on Friday, no, it wasn’t an actual earthquake, but rather the New York Times publishing a review of Harper Lee’s long awaited follow-up to her classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” What made the earth (almost literally) shake, was the reveal that in “Go Set a Watchman,” set 20 years after TKAM, Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved characters of American fiction, is portrayed as a bigot.

As reviewer Michio Kakutani explains in her write-up of ‘Watchman,’ “Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter: ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?'”

It’s a shock to the system, hearing these words come from a character who became a legend for preaching tolerance and acceptance. This is not to say that TKAM is without its problems in its depiction of race, the classic novel has been, not unfairly, accused of having a “white savior complex.” That said, it’s hard to believe the character of Atticus Finch, the character who “did his best to love everyone,” spouting off this ignorance, and yet that’s exactly what’s happened.

It’s here that we remember that “Go Set a Watchman” was written BEFORE “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee’s editor, after reading “Watchman,” advised the author to do a complete overhaul of the novel, taking the flashbacks of Scout’s childhood that existed in “Watchman,” and make Scout’s coming-of-age the focus of her story. It’s unsettling to realize that the “Watchman” portrayal was how she originally intended her readers to experience Atticus, not at as a hero of the people, but as an extremely flawed individual with painfully backwards views.

Now we turn to Twitter, where some users are dealing with their broken hearts, while others are cracking jokes (which, we suspect, might be a coping mechanism for dealing with similarly broken hearts):

That said, other find value in this new look at Finch:

These last points are well taken. It’s rough seeing a beloved character in this harsh new light, and yet, if it causes people to really take a long and thoughtful look at the issues, then it seems like we, as readers, thinkers, and people, are doing exactly what Harper Lee has always wanted us to do with her work- allow her words to make us smarter, and ultimately better.


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