Atticus' Halo Comes Apart In 'Watchman' Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird are in for a shock: In Harper Lee's new book, Go Set a Watchman, the beloved Atticus is a racist. NPR's Lynn Neary talks with Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan.
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Atticus' Halo Comes Apart In 'Watchman'

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Atticus' Halo Comes Apart In 'Watchman'

Atticus' Halo Comes Apart In 'Watchman'

Atticus' Halo Comes Apart In 'Watchman'

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Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird are in for a shock: In Harper Lee's new book, Go Set a Watchman, the beloved Atticus is a racist. NPR's Lynn Neary talks with Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The early reviews of Harper Lee's much-anticipated new book "Go Set A Watchman" are in. And for those of you listening who have not seen or heard about the reviews, be forewarned, spoilers are ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're going to keep this on a firm schedule.

NEARY: At Square Books in Oxford, Miss., devoted fans of Lee's first novel, "To Kill A Mockingbird," gathered Saturday morning for a reading of that book.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK READING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Reading) I ain't scared, just respectful Jen said. The next day, Jill said, you're too scared even to put your big toe in the front yard.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Reading) He ain't company, Cal (ph), he's just a Cunningham. Hush your mouth.

NEARY: Some had already heard about the reviews, others had not. Beau Wilson was shocked to learn that the review in The New York Times revealed that one of the most adored characters in American literature, Atticus Finch, is a racist in the new book.

BEAU WILSON: That is not a pleasant thing to hear. I hate to - yeah, that does kind of put a damper on the compelling message in "To Kill A Mockingbird." I hope that doesn't turn out to be true.

NEARY: Unfortunately, it is. Susan Robertson, who had traveled all the way from Oklahoma City to take part in the reading at Square Books, was also trying to grapple with this new reality.

SUSAN ROBERTSON: You know, it's hard, this character, Atticus Finch, has been a strong person that we've all - have admired and, you know, you don't quite know what someone's motive was. I haven't read the book. I can't say, but I'll read it.

NEARY: Among the few people in the country who has had a chance to read "Go Set A Watchman" is Maureen Corrigan, book critic for Fresh Air. And she joins me now. Thanks so much for being here, Maureen.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: So tell us about the Atticus of "Go Set A Watchman," and how surprised were you by how different he apparently is from the Atticus of "To Kill A Mockingbird"?

CORRIGAN: Well, at first, Atticus in "Go Set A Watchman" seems very familiar. Hey's wry, he's wise, he's absolutely unruffled by anything the 26-year-old Scout does. He seems exactly like the Atticus we remembered from "To Kill A Mockingbird." But as the novel progresses, and certainly in its central moment, which takes place at the courthouse once again, we see a different sort of Atticus. We see an Atticus who's arguing for state's rights. And this is in, you know, 1954, 1955. So the Civil Rights Movement is really taking hold across the South. He's arguing against the NAACP. He's talking about black people not being as a developed intellectually and emotionally as white people. He's a much more disturbing character. He's not the heroic character, certainly of "To Kill A Mockingbird."

NEARY: Were you surprised by that turn in the novel?

CORRIGAN: At first, I thought that Atticus had something up his sleeve. At first, I thought that he was the Atticus of old and that he had some master plan to further integration by, you know, pretending to go along with the citizens council and find out what they were up to and then there would be another turn earn in the novel and he would come out as the Atticus we know and love.

This Atticus is not ahead of his time, however, and he's arguing that integration should move at a much slower pace than what the Supreme Court in Brown v. the Board of Education has just decreed that it should move at.

NEARY: Now, from what I've read, from the reviews I've read - there's a few of them that are out now - this is really kind of a story of disillusionment.

CORRIGAN: Yes.

NEARY: That the grown-up Scout, now Jean Louise, has to come to terms with her father's beliefs.

CORRIGAN: Yes.

NEARY: Her father she adores, the beliefs she really abhors.

CORRIGAN: Yes. Yeah, and by the end of the novel, Atticus, again in his wise, paternal, benevolent way, is saying to Scout, here called Jean Louise, you know, you kind of had to kill me. And what he means by that - it's a very Freudian kind of reference - you've got to slay the father in order to develop your own conscience. It's not satisfying, though. It's a messy book. I mean, honestly, it reads like a failed attempt at a sequel to "To Kill A Mockingbird."

NEARY: And we should talk about this because "Go Set A Watchman" was written before "To Kill A Mockingbird."

CORRIGAN: Yes.

NEARY: But the action of "Go Set A Watchman" takes place after.

CORRIGAN: Yes.

NEARY: So is it a prequel or a sequel? What is it?

CORRIGAN: Well, the official story is that it was the first draft of "To Kill A Mockingbird" and that Harper Lee's editor at the time said, why don't you flesh out the 1930s part? Why don't you flesh out Scout's childhood. That seems to be where the real interest is. Now, if I had just picked up "Go Set A Watchman" without hearing any of the back story, I would have thought this is a failed attempt at a sequel. It reads like it was written after. There's constant references to the action of the earlier book. And it almost doesn't make sense without having "To Kill A Mockingbird" in your head.

NEARY: So you're not buying the story that you've...

CORRIGAN: I'm suspicious about the story. I am.

NEARY: Do you think that this book shouldn't have been published?

CORRIGAN: (Laughter) Here's what I think. I think that people who love "To Kill A Mockingbird," and we are legion, will be disappointed, that we will be as disillusioned as Scout is without Atticus after being this book. I do think, though, that there's an interesting angle to this book, and that is how does a character like Scout, who's - what? - 6 to 9 years old in the original - how does a female character like that grow up? She's a Tom-boy in the language of the time. She's 26 years old here in the mid-'50s. The Civil Rights Movement is rocking this world. The second women's movement hasn't happened yet, and that's what this Scout needs. She does not have a place within the traditional southern society. She's just not that kind of feminine woman. And I feel like it's almost like this Scout needs to fast forward to 2015 and then she'd be happy. She'd see available roles for women that simply don't exist in the mid-1950s.

NEARY: Maureen Corrigan is book critic for Fresh Air and teaches literature at Georgetown University. Thanks, Maureen.

CORRIGAN: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: I think.

CORRIGAN: (Laughter).

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