New Harper Lee Novel Changes Image of Atticus Finch

By Erin Delmore

“It was at times like this when I thought my father, who hated guns, and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”

So says an adoring Jean Louise Finch, better known as “Scout,” in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Fifty-five years after its publication, the novel, and its hero Atticus Finch, captivate readers.

“I think of Atticus Finch as the ultimate peacemaker,” said Elisabeth Egan, books editor for Glamour Magazine.

“He embodies justice,” said Jennifer Hart, English teacher at William F. Halsey Academy.

But Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, might threaten that image. The novel is set 20 years after Mockingbird and told through the eyes of grown-up Jean Louise. She returns home to Maycomb, Alabama to find her 72-year-old father rallying against desegregation and attending Klan meetings.

“Atticus, her father, is actually portrayed as a bigot. And that surprised me. A lot! It makes me pause and say, ‘Oh do I want to read it and sort of ruin that character of Atticus?’” Hart said.

Hart teaches the seminal novel to 10th-graders at the William F. Halsey Academy.

“The school is located in Elizabeth, so they’re inner-city population kids so that book really kind of touches a note with a lot of them because it does deal with a lot of racial tension issues and what was going on in the South at the time. And a lot of it gets echoed in their lives more than I think people understand,” she said.

Publishers, book-sellers and fans of author Harper Lee hope Watchman will find a place in readers’ hearts, with all its complexities.

“I think that it is well-positioned for today’s times, for this type of book to be coming out,” said Monica Odom of Watchung Booksellers.

“We’ve been more excited about this book than any book to come along in a very long time,” said Mark Fabian, community business development manager at Barnes & Noble.

The discovery of Lee’s manuscript for Watchman — what many consider to be a first-draft of Mockingbird — shocked fans. The decision to publish actually sparked an investigation by the state of Alabama over whether Lee had the mental faculties to consent to its release. Filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy sat down with the famously reclusive author.

“When you communicate with Harper Lee, you have to vwrite things down and hand her the piece of paper. I held up the book and I held up my question, which was, ‘Did you ever think you would see this published?’ And she said, ‘Don’t be silly, of course I did,’” Murphy relayed.

Investigators in Alabama interviewed Lee, her friends and employees at the assisted-living facility where she resides. They agreed that she did consent to publishing Watchman. Now, more than a half-century after she penned it, readers can see where To Kill a Mockingbird begins — and ends.