'Go Set a Watchman': Why the new Atticus Finch is different than you think

Some fans are aghast over the portrayal of hero Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's new book 'Watchman.' But it's important to remember 'Watchman' isn't a sequel to 'Mockingbird.'

Fans are still in a furor over Harper Lee’s new book “Go Set a Watchman.” The novel hit bookshelves today officially but was in the news long before that – remarkable first for the fact that it existed at all and then for its depiction of beloved character Atticus Finch.

Lee is the author of the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” and didn’t publish another book after that for more than 50 years. Then earlier this year, news broke that another book by Lee had been found and that it centered on characters seen in “Mockingbird.” The book was officially released July 14.

“Watchman” focuses on "Mockingbird" protagonist Scout as an adult when she travels back to her hometown of Maycomb, Ala., and visits her father, Atticus. “Mockingbird” fans know Atticus as the heroic lawyer who defended an African-American man accused of raping a white woman, so many were shocked to hear that the Atticus character in the new book opposes desegregation following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the case Brown v. Board of Education and also expresses other racist opinions.

Some are aghast over this change, while others praise the book as a more complex look at the town of Maycomb and the South in general and still others feel that Atticus expressed some dubious views in “Mockingbird” itself. The debate will no doubt divide literary fans for years to come, but one thing is important to remember in deciding how you feel: the path of “Watchman” to publication.

“Watchman” is not a sequel to “Mockingbird” and Atticus in “Watchman” is not the reader catching up with the Atticus of “Mockingbird” years later. Back when the book’s publication was first announced, Lee herself said in a statement, “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called 'Go Set a Watchman.’ It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel [which became 'To Kill a Mockingbird'] from the point of view of the young Scout.”

Lee wrote the character of Atticus as seen in “Watchman” first and then wrote him as seen in “Mockingbird” later. Also interesting to note: Lee’s father Amasa Coleman Lee, who some call an inspiration for Atticus, first supported segregation and then reportedly had a change of heart while Lee was writing “Mockingbird,”  becoming a supporter of integration. Lee was said to be very proud of her father for changing his mind.

Readers can feel however they like about this different version of Atticus, but it’s important to remember just how he got to the written page. The Atticus in the second book is not a "follow-up" to the Atticus of "Mockingbird." He's actually the first iteration of the Atticus character that Lee created. The Atticus in "Mockingbird" is the later version and that's something we need to remember.

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