Harper Lee's bombshell of a book

Harper Lee's new book, out tomorrow, shocks fans
Harper Lee's new book, out tomorrow, shocks fans

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Harper Lee's new book, out tomorrow, shocks fans 08:51

Story highlights

  • Jay Parini: Bombshell of Harper Lee's second novel is that it portrays Atticus Finch, wrenchingly, as a racist in his older age
  • He says book's prose and plot don't impress, but they offer a teachable moment on civil rights and race that is sadly still relevant today

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His newest book is "Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal," which comes out in October. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)After months of speculation, we have in our hands the second novel by Harper Lee, "Go Set a Watchman" -- published 55 years after "To Kill a Mockingbird" appeared to loud acclaim in 1960, with a major film adaptation in 1962.

"Watchman" is, in fact, a bombshell of a book, as it presents Atticus Finch, the classic hero of "Mockingbird," as a racist old man of 72 who says to his horrified adult daughter: "You realize that our Negro population is backward, don't you?"
Jay Parini
He doesn't want them to get their voting rights, he explains, "because if the Negro vote edged out the white you'd have Negroes in every county office."
    The new novel isn't a sequel, though it functions in that way. It was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird," and the young author was asked by a shrewd editor to put the manuscript aside and return in her mind to the heroine's earlier days, which are barely mentioned.
    For instance, one gets only a few paragraphs in "Watchman" about the rape of a white girl and the black man, Tom Robinson, accused of the crime.
    As a young lawyer, Atticus -- the widowed father of two children, Scout and Jem -- takes Robinson's case because his conscience dictates that he do so. His daughter later recalls: "Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl."
    This tiny seed of narrative blossoms fully in "Mockingbird," especially in the film. Yet it's fascinating to notice that in "Go Set a Watchman," Robinson actually gets off. In "Mockingbird," he's found guilty.
    In "Watchman," Scout -- who goes mostly by her proper name, Jean Louise -- returns from New York City to visit her father, whom she once considered a paragon of virtue. But she is shocked to see him transformed into a raving segregationist, an opponent of lawyers who want to fight for civil rights.
    He tells his daughter: "Scout, you probably don't know it, but the NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards down here ..."
    His liberal daughter doesn't know what to say to her cranky and prejudiced father, who can't even listen to her now.
    There is hardly any plot in "Go Set a Watchman," and very little tension.
    It's just the story of a return visit to a place that the adult Scout wants to forget but can't. The prose is ordinary, even dull, and the narrative pace is slack: a kind word might be "leisurely."
    It's obvious why Harper Lee's editor quietly asked her to shelve it, and it's perhaps embarrassing that it has come out.
    On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine it will tarnish "To Kill a Mockingbird," which has sold over 40 million copies and found a solid place on the curriculum of most American schools. Indeed, my youngest son once complained to me that he was forced to read this novel five times while in school. Quite reasonably, he wondered: Is this novel really so wonderful?
    Critic: New Lee novel is a 'failed sequel' and 'messy'
    Atticus Harper Lee go set a watchman criticism_00012130

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    Critic: New Lee novel is a 'failed sequel' and 'messy' 01:25
    The answer is yes and no.
    Ditching the third-person narrative of "Go Set a Watchman," Lee found the lyrical voice of Scout, who recounts with some gusto the story of her life with her father and brother and a friend called Dill, who sometimes visits his aunt in Maycomb. (Dill is thought to have been modeled on Lee's childhood friend, the novelist Truman Capote.)
    The trial of Tom Robinson was only a part of "To Kill a Mockingbird," but it became central to the film, and Atticus (played by Gregory Peck) inspired generations of young men and women to enter the legal profession.
    Serious critics have found Lee's famous novel flawed.
    Recently, for instance, Sarah Churchwell observed that Atticus is not as morally impeccable as people like to imagine: "Lee's hero is a virtuous, middle-class white man, full of noblesse oblige to the black people he defends (who revere him for it), but who doesn't bat an eyelid at the common knowledge that the illiterate, white-trash Mayella Ewell is regularly raped and beaten by her father."
    I myself have cringed at the honey-coated morality of Finch, who -- as his daughter says, "hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived."
    Certainly in the context of a deeply racist town in the South in the 1930s, Finch seems remarkably bold in character, eager to teach his children how to step into the shoes of other people before passing judgments.
    Because of this, it's wrenching to discover that the elder Atticus, as portrayed in "Watchmen," has become a bigoted fool who wants to stop black people from voting.
    Teachers of "To Kill a Mockingbird" across the nation will now have to explain to their students what happened to Atticus in later life and how his moral compass got so terribly out of whack.
    They may find this a "teachable moment," noting that the long battle for civil rights even now remains at the forefront of American life. There are still efforts afoot across the country to stifle black voices -- as in the guise of voter ID laws, which are supposed to suppress voter fraud but are really aimed at suppressing minority voices.
    Indeed, it was only two years ago that the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- a major piece of Civil Rights legislation. In North Carolina today, the issues of voting and discrimination -- as described in "Go Set a Watchman" -- seem as relevant as ever.
    Scout soulfully asks herself in "Watchman": "What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved?"
    It's a pertinent question, and Lee's novel -- however minor as a work of literature -- seems timely in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and so many other recent sites of racial tension.
    One can hope that the attention this novel will certainly receive will occasion sound discussions of a difficult past that has become our difficult present.