New Harper Lee novel presents an un­saintly At­ti­cus Finch

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Harper Lee's un­ex­pected new novel of­fers an un­ex­pected and star­tling 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"? ar­gues the man por­trayed by Os­car-win­ner Gre­gory Peck in the 1962 film adap­ta­tion of "Mock­ing­bird."

"They've made ter­rific progress in adapt­ing them­selves to white ways, but they're far from it yet."

"Watch­man" was writ­ten be­fore "Mock­ing­bird" and is only Lee's sec­ond book, one that Lee's at­tor­ney, Tonja Carter, has said she stum­bled upon last year. It will be pub­lished Tues­day. The As­so­ci­ated Press pur­chased an early copy.

Pub­lisher HarperCollins, an­tic­i­pat­ing con­cerns that At­ti­cus' 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."

"'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.

The por­trait of At­ti­cus, a sup­posed lib­eral re­veal­ing crude prej­u­dices, will likely re-en­er­gize 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 As­so­ci­ated Press 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.

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