Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was officially released July 14, shining a rather racist light on America’s beloved fictional father — Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Needless to say, the reactions haven’t been pretty. Some are boycotting the new book, while others believe this version of Atticus Finch destroys his original character and demand that the American classic be taken off school reading lists. Cue outrage, and one of the most exciting publishing events in history.
Behind the Controversy
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, but it is set in 1930s Maycomb, Alabama. While it focuses on 6-year-old Scout (Jean Louise Finch), the book’s true hero is her father, Atticus Finch, who is painted as a moral hero after agreeing to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Fast forward about 20 years, and Go Set a Watchman starts with Jean Louise all grown up and living in New York City. She comes home to visit Maycomb, and finds things to be different from what she remembers. (A real shocker for anyone who’s moved away from home and returned.) Her moral-hero father actually supports segregation and has even attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting or two. And her sometimes boyfriend, Henry Clinton, defends him.
The publishing of the book is equally controversial. Go Set a Watchman is also rumored to be the original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s publisher at the time liked the flashback to Jean Louise’s childhood from Go Set a Watchman and said that Lee should rewrite it from the child’s perspective, which later became To Kill a Mockingbird after two years of edits. Some believe that Lee — who repeatedly said she’d never publish another book, and is believed to have been diagnosed with dementia — was tricked into publishing the novel. Her publisher said that she agreed to publish it as long as it was only lightly edited.
Despite the controversies, Go Set a Watchman broke the record for most first-day sales of any adult fiction book at Barnes & Noble, and it’s currently the top-selling book on Amazon. The question remains, whether or not Harper Lee agreed to publish the novel, would she be OK with readers’ reactions to the new Atticus Finch?