Bookstores opened early around the United States on Tuesday as Harper Lee’s second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” went on sale to mixed reviews and widespread disillusion over the depiction of heroic lawyer Atticus Finch as a 1950s racist.
The Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe in Lee’s Monroeville, Alabama, hometown opened at midnight and other stores opened early to meet demand for the reclusive author’s only published novel since her 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Although widely billed as a sequel to Lee’s tale of racism and injustice in the American South, “Watchman” was written before “Mockingbird” but is set 20 years after the events of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Lee, now 89, was advised by her editor in the 1950s to recast “Watchman,” which features a grown-up Scout Finch and her aging father Atticus Finch, and tell the story from a child’s point of view. That re-working became “Mockingbird.”
“Watchman”s portrayal of the older Finch as a man who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting and opposes racial desegregation has already grabbed headlines because of the stark contrast to the noble lawyer in “Mockingbird” who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks described “Watchman” as “a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.”
Several reviewers found fault with the new book on artistic grounds.
David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times called it “an apprentice effort (that) falls apart in the second half” and Julia Teller at the Chicago Tribune said it was “almost unbearably clunky” in parts.
National Public Radio’s Maureen Corrigan called it “a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically.”
The book is “kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece,” Corrigan said.
It was too early on Tuesday to measure any possible fallout on sales. Publishers Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, has ordered an initial U.S. print run of two million and “Watchman” has been the best-selling book on Amazon.com in pre-orders for more than a week.
Not all the reviews were negative. While criticizing parts of the book, Teller said “Watchman” is memorable for its “sophisticated and even prescient view of the long march for racial justice.”
Yet for many Americans, the toppling of Atticus Finch as a paragon of virtue was almost too much to bear.
“As a child in rural Mississippi who read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in the 1960s, an adult character like Atticus Finch gave me hope. Nobody’s perfect but I’d rather hold onto my memories of the first Mr. Finch,” wrote a commentator called Pantheist, from Texas, on the New York Times website.
Jim, from Boston, also commenting on the newspaper’s website, said: “Considering the way some of these people are reacting I would hate to be around when somebody finally tells them that there’s no Santa Claus either.”