I’ve been reluctant to post on this, even though this is huge literary news. I’ve been reluctant because I’ve never read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Shocking, I know, but for some reason the assignment escaped me while in school, and I can’t say it’s the type of novel that would galvanize me to run and pick it up. (For the record, it’s one of my wife’s favorite novels and she was shocked I had never read it.) That’s not to say it’s not a great book or even an important book. I can’t vouch for how great a book it is since I haven’t read it, but certainly it’s an important book, either for its cultural significance of African-American civil rights and for being an incredible best seller.
Another reason why a second Harper Lee novel is big news is that in all these years—54 years since To Kill a Mockingbird was published—Lee has never published another novel, nor had expressed any interest in doing so. Obviously there was speculation, even speculation that she didn’t even write Mockingbird. Apparently that’s not true. Some writers have a limitation to their imagination. Some writers can only write about a particularly personal period in their lives, a period where the circumstances of their lives indelibly shape their persona so that life at that moment is heightened and perhaps even fossilized. Hemingway and World War I is such an example. Harper Lee’s imagination seems to have been indelibly formed by mid twentieth southern life, especially as it pertains to its racial tensions. Which leads to her new novel, Go Set a Watchman, which will be published in July.
From the NY Times:
For more than half a century, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has stood apart as a singular American literary masterpiece, a perennial best seller that has provoked countless classroom discussions about racial and social injustice. It brought instant and overwhelming fame to its enigmatic author, Harper Lee, who soon retreated from the spotlight to her native Monroeville, Ala. She never published another book, leaving her millions of fans yearning for more.
Now, at age 88, Ms. Lee has revealed that she wrote another novel after all — a sequel of sorts to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” featuring an aging Atticus Finch and his grown daughter, Scout.
On Tuesday, Ms. Lee’s publisher announced its plans to release that novel, recently rediscovered, which Ms. Lee completed in the mid-1950s, before she wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The 304-page book, “Go Set a Watchman,” takes place 20 years later in the same fictional town, Maycomb, Ala., and unfolds as Jean Louise Finch, or Scout, the feisty child heroine of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” returns to visit her father. The novel, which is scheduled for release this July, tackles the racial tensions brewing in the South in the 1950s and delves into the complex relationship between father and daughter.
As you can see the new novel carries the same character, especially the central point-of-view character, Jean Louise Finch, which inescapably is the eyes of the novelist. This apparently was when Ms. Lee’s imagination was formed and is most alive to creatively reproduce. As it turns out, the new novel was written before the old novel, making To Kill a Mockingbird a prequel.
Although written first, “Go Set a Watchman” is a continuation of the same story, with overlapping themes and characters. But Ms. Lee abandoned the manuscript after her editor, who was captivated by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, told her to write a new book from the young heroine’s perspective and to set it during her childhood.
“I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” Ms. Lee said in a statement released by her publisher.
That story became “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a classic that was adapted into a 1962 film and has sold more than 40 million copies globally since it was published in 1960. It continues to sell more than a million copies a year and has been translated into more than 40 languages.
The new novel was recently discovered after all these years.
Ms. Lee said she had thought the draft of “Go Set a Watchman” had been lost or destroyed. Then last fall, Tonja Carter, her friend and lawyer, discovered the manuscript in a secure place where Ms. Lee keeps her archives, attached to an original typed manuscript of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” According to Ms. Lee’s publisher, Ms. Carter didn’t understand what she had stumbled on at first, until she realized that the passages weren’t from Ms. Lee’s first and only novel.
Ms. Lee wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of releasing it but was persuaded after a handful of people read it and reassured her it was worth publishing.
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“After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication,” she said.
Scholars have long been aware that Harper Lee wrote an earlier manuscript, but many thought it was an early version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” not a separate story that unfolds 20 years later.
I’m actually skeptical that the soon to be published book will be anywhere as good as the first. After all, first novels are usually an act of apprenticeship and typically secondary works in a great writer’s career. There was some rumor that Harper Lee was manipulated to publish this long lost work. She had had a stroke in 2007 and did not have her full faculties. And the sales of a new Harper Lee novel would certainly make some people a lot of money. But that rumor was put to rest by a longtime friend. From the Associated Press:
A longtime friend who visited "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee the day before the world learned she would release a sequel says she was feisty but didn't mention her new book.
Historian Wayne Flynt, a friend of the famous author, said he believes Lee was capable of giving permission for the previously unpublished manuscript to be released.
"This narrative of senility, exploitation of this helpless little old lady is just hogwash. It's just complete bunk," historian Wayne Flynt said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Flynt visited with Lee on Monday at the assisted-living facility where she lives in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. That was a day before a division of HarperCollins Publishers announced the publication of "Go Set a Watchman." The publisher said Tonja Carter, an attorney who practiced with Lee's sister, found the manuscript, which will be released in July as a sequel to the beloved novel.
All very interesting. Perhaps I should try to squeeze in her classic into this year’s reads.