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Book Review

In Harper Lee’s novel ‘Watchman,’ Atticus is a racist

NEW YORK — Harper Lee’s highly anticipated new novel offers an unexpected and disturbing take on an American literary saint, Atticus Finch.

‘‘Go Set a Watchman’’ is set in the 1950s, 20 years after Lee’s celebrated ‘‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’’ and finds Atticus hostile to the growing civil rights movement.

In one particularly dramatic encounter with his now-adult daughter, Scout, the upright Alabama lawyer who famously defended a black man in ‘‘Mockingbird’’ condemns the NAACP as opportunists and troublemakers and labels blacks as too ‘‘backward’’ to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.

‘‘Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em?’’ asks the man portrayed by Oscar-winner Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation of ‘‘Mockingbird.’’

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‘‘They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet,’’ Atticus says in “Watchman.’’

According to news accounts, “Watchman” was submitted to publishers in summer 1957.

After her editor asked for a rewrite focusing on Scout’s girlhood two decades earlier, Lee reworked the novel to create “Mockingbird.’’

“Watchman’’ reflects the experiences of the adult Scout (or Jean Louise, as she is now known), who lives in New York City but returns home to Maycomb, Ala., for a visit.

While there, she is dismayed to learn that Atticus and her longtime boyfriend Henry Clinton both have disturbing views on race and segregation.

‘‘Go Set a Watchman’’ was written before ‘‘Mockingbird’’ and is one of only two books produced by Lee. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, has said she stumbled upon the work last year. It will be published Tuesday, but the Associated Press purchased an early copy.

Publisher HarperCollins, anticipating concerns that Atticus’s harsh talk will disillusion millions of fans, issued a statement late Friday saying, ‘‘The question of Atticus’s racism is one of the most important and critical elements in this novel, and it should be considered in the context of the book’s broader moral themes.’’

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‘‘ ‘Go Set a Watchman’ explores racism and changing attitudes in the South during the 1950s in a bold and unflinching way,’’ the statement reads.

‘‘At its heart, it is the coming-of-age story of a young woman who struggles to reconcile the saintly figure of her beloved father with her own more enlightened views. In ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ Scout takes center stage as we witness her anger toward and stand against prejudice and social injustice.’’

Rarely has news of a novel been so celebrated and so dreaded since HarperCollins shocked the world in February by announcing that a second Harper Lee novel was coming, an event her fans had long given up on and Lee had often said wouldn’t happen.

HarperCollins has reported that preorders for ‘‘Watchman’’ are the highest in company history, and Amazon.com has announced that the novel’s preorders are the strongest since the last ‘‘Harry Potter’’ story, which came out in 2007.

But questions have been raised all along about the quality of the book, completed when Lee was a young and unpublished writer and received coolly by publishers, and whether the 89-year-old Lee was fully aware of the planned release.

Alabama officials, responding to at least one complaint of possible elder abuse, even visited with Lee at her nursing home in Monroeville and concluded she was indeed capable of making decisions about the book.

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The portrait of Atticus, a supposed liberal revealing crude prejudices, will likely reenergize an old debate about ‘‘Mockingbird,’’ which has long been admired more by whites than by blacks.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and widely praised as a sensitive portrait of racial tension as seen through the eyes of a child in 1930s Alabama, it also has been criticized as sentimental and paternalistic.

In an interview with the AP earlier this year, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison called it a ‘‘white savior’’ narrative, ‘‘one of those’’ that reduced blacks to onlookers in their own struggles for equal rights.

In “Mockingbird,” Atticus uses his legal gifts to defend a black man and condemns prejudice and hatred. He praises American courts as “the great levelers,” dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

In “Watchman,’’ Atticus is revealed to be a man who once attended a Klan meeting, and who says things like “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” He asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

“Watchman” is set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that integrated public schools. Atticus denounces the Supreme Court, and says he wants his home state “to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP.”