At a party recently, a woman told me that she was afraid to read Harper Lee's new book because she—like Jennifer Love Hewitt and many other people—had named one of her children Atticus. I was not surprised to hear this. Americans treat Lee's first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, as their secular bible and Atticus Finch as their secular Jesus (or at least high-school English departments do). But this woman had read the news reports. She'd heard that the character of Atticus Finch has been complicated by this new book, if you can call an unedited manuscript a book. Specifically, she'd heard the news reports that Atticus has been revealed to be a racist. I felt for her. I thought of those Germans in the 1930s who named their boys Adolf.
In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch, the man to whom many ninth-grade students outsource their morality, is 20 years older than the Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, and he has become hopelessly arthritic, and he spews racist nonsense creepily enough in the soothing rhythms of the Atticus of old.
What's gross is that his racism is rooted in "logic" and strict fidelity to the law. It's grounded in the notion that the world works one way and it will only ever work in that one way and that way was determined forever the moment that the Constitution of the United States was ratified. He's a "thinking man's" racist. Someone who should know better, but who for personal reasons maintains views designed to keep his kind in power. He's mega-pissed at the NAACP because whenever a black person is accused of something, they step in and try to form a more sympathetic jury, which Atticus feels runs counter to the town's interests. He calls himself a "Jeffersonian Democrat," i.e., a person who believes that only certain educated people should enjoy the privileges of citizenship, including the right to vote. And, as you may have heard, he goes to a KKK meeting. This is true, but it's worth mentioning that he doesn't go to the KKK meeting in order to wait in line for a new white hood. He goes because he hates masks and he wants to see who in the town is hiding under them. After that one time, he doesn't go again.
Atticus's racism is not the center of the book. The center of the book is Scout—who also narrated To Kill a Mockingbird and who now would like you to call her Jean Louise, please—figuring out how to be a grown-up, figuring out how to distance herself from her town and her family and childhood itself. And yes, naturally, this process does involve a fair amount of her yelling at Dad for being a racist.
As the book starts, she's taking a train to (the fictional town of) Maycomb, Alabama. She's visiting from New York, where she lives as a plucky and independent twentysomething. She rolls into her hometown and huffs for 80 boring pages about all the changes that have occurred since she left. There are a few saccharine manic-pixie-dream-girl episodes with her quasi-suitor, Hank. And then at some point, she finds a pamphlet in Atticus's library that explains black people's inferiority using "scientific" evidence. But what really sets her off is seeing her father nodding along to a racist spiel at a Citizens' Council meeting, and she sees this while leaning on the very balcony from which she watched Atticus fight in To Kill a Mockingbird for the acquittal of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Insult, meet injury.
For the rest of Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise burns with righteous fury, summoning the particular vitriol one acquires in college, when the recent loss of one's ignorance ignites a fiery intolerance for other people's ignorance. Jean Louise (it's so hard not to call her Scout) has it particularly bad because her dad is Atticus. Dad of the Century. Guy Who Always Did Right. She, like all those ninth graders reading To Kill a Mockingbird, like all those parents who named their children after him, felt very close to him and so felt very betrayed by the fact that he'd hold views so clearly different from the ones he imparted to her as a child.
But it's not like if you named your child Scout—as Demi Moore and plenty of other people have done—you're off scot-free. Though Scout/Jean Louise lays out Atticus with some pretty solid takedowns, most of her jabs participate in the racism she's seeking to stomp out of him. For example, in one of her counterarguments, she ends up agreeing with Atticus's premise that black people are "backward" and "simple." Which sucks. And it makes the book suck. Or it makes it a product of its time. Or a first draft. Or desperately in need of an editor. All of which it is.
To Kill a Mockingbird will never be the same because Atticus will never be the same—now that he has been revealed to be a cog in the machine of structural racism who happened to get a few things right way back when. In a way, this is healthy. Someone who thinks of To Kill a Mockingbird as their bible can never be their own person until they start questioning their God. It's odd that Go Set a Watchman was written first. It's almost as if Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman in a fit of clairvoyance about the future success of To Kill a Mockingbird—wrote it just to muddy up the figure of the man who'd become something like a cardboard cutout of moral rightness. The book may be trying to show us that we should constantly fight the urge to rely on some higher power such as Atticus. That's not a terrible takeaway, despite the fact that it's a terrible book.
I repeat: Do not buy the book. It's not good. It's a waste of your time. Instead, reread To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been newly drained of the sense that it's the last word on justice.