On Harper Lee’s New Book: Should “To Kill a Mockingbird” Have a Sequel?

On Harper Lee’s New Book: Should “To Kill a Mockingbird” Have a Sequel? February 4, 2015

Harper Lee in 1962 (public domain)
Harper Lee in 1962 (public domain)

It is very big news however you think of it: On July 14, Harper Lee will publish her first novel since To Kill a Mockingbird. Called Go Set a Watchman, it is set twenty years later, in the 1950s, and is told from the point of view of the grown-up Scout Finch in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.

Lee said, in a statement released by Harper (the publisher):

In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel (what became To Kill a Mockingbird) from the point of view of the young Scout.

I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it [the original book] had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. 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. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.

So this is not a new novel but the earlier version of what became To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a 60-year-old manuscript that will be published as is, with zero edits. So no one is tampering with Lee’s words. Nor was it written with the intent of being a sequel, but it was what she originally intended the story to be. To call it a “sequel” may be a bit of a misnomer.

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Still, not everyone is excited by the news. E! Online and Jezebel caution us to “be suspicious.” Madeleine Davies explains.

Harper Lee’s sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee’s estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

Lee had a stroke in 2007, is almost blind and deaf, and even her attorney Ms. Carter concedes that she may not always fully understand what she is signing. Gawker had reported a lot of this last July, when an “unauthorized” biography of Lee, written by Marja Mills, was published.

When the news came out, a few folks on Twitter were suspicious that, only three months after Lee’s fiercely protective sister died, a sixty-year-old lost and unpublished manuscript would out of nowhere, all of a sudden, shazaam, magically be found.

Seija Rankin says:

[I]t’s hard to deny the somewhat sudden release of this sequel doesn’t quite fit the pattern of the life that Harper Lee has led for the past half-century. It’s important, to us at least, to balance a book’s interest with the legacy and wishes of its author. Especially when that same author once told an audience, during a rare public appearance, that “It’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

***

Well, Go Set a Watchman may not exactly make Harper Lee look like a “fool.” That might be the self-doubt of a reclusive author talking, or the jadedness of a public that has learned to take a low view of sequels. (One person on Facebook quipped that the main character of the new novel will be Jar Jar Radley.)

I suspect that Lee was unwilling to publish anything after Mockingbird for two reasons: (1) she was, as she once said, more like Boo Radley than Scout Finch, and public attention did not suit her; (2) she knew that nothing else she ever wrote, however good, would be To Kill a Mockingbird. She was publicity shy and wrote a book that is just impossible to match.

But then, one does ask: Why a sequel? Would that not, all the more, invite unfair comparison? And isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird so good that it stands on its own and does not need to be added to?

Lee says—and given the state of her health, some will wonder whether the words are entirely her own—that she was pleased her friends thought it worthy of publication. Well, okay. Not knowing who those friends are, one cannot speak for their ability to judge literary merit. Go Set a Watchman will sell, and sell big. It will do so for no other reason than the fact that Harper Lee wrote it, and she has published nothing else for fifty-five years, and her only other book is a beloved and unspeakably beautiful classic. So some will ask if that is real point here: that a sequel, a new book by Harper Lee, will make some people a lot of money. (Minus whatever goes to medical care.) People worry themselves a lot about the motivations of others.

But then, all this would have happened anyway, after Lee dies. Hemingway’s unpublished novels, and Nabokov’s unfinished Original of Laura, all came out regardless of their merit as literature or the wishes of the author. One can only guess what future titles we may or may not see that were written by J.D. Salinger. Many shudder to think of it.

No one wants to see Harper Lee taken advantage of, or her true wishes manipulated, due to her inability to decide for herself. (If that has happened. Who knows?) But neither can anyone doubt that the unpublished works of famous writers end up finding their way into print anyway once they are no longer with us. Like it or not, that is what happens when a famous writer is dead, or can no longer make decisions for herself. Something she may not otherwise have wanted published, is.

But is it moral? Is it right? I don’t know. Whether or not Go Set a Watchman has any merit as literature, it will certainly be of value to literary scholars who study the origin of great fiction. This is, after all, not a sequel so much as it is the first version of what would become To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s editor simply convinced her to expand on the flashbacks and publish them as their own novel.

People love to argue over this question too: whether one ought to publish something against a famous author’s true wishes, just because the author was famous and, whatever else it benefits, it also benefits scholarship. I do not doubt that argument will be hashed out again in the months before and after this new book comes out.

It is a complex question and I have never fully made up my own mind about it.

***

Megan Garber, writing in The Atlantic, sounds an elegiac note. The title of her article is “Harper Lee: The Sadness of a Sequel.” She asks: Why? and, Why now?

Perhaps it really was as simple as a manuscript lost and recovered, serendipitously for all involved. Perhaps all those doubts Lee had previously expressed about the publication of a second novel were merely the results of the natural, but not invincible, anxiety that comes with that infamously fraught project. Perhaps Lee regretted having signed over her copyright of Mockingbird, and wanted something else she could call, in the fullest sense, truly hers. Perhaps Lee, approaching her 90s, figured that age will afford her what her attempts at a sheltered life could not: the easy relief of silence.

Or perhaps Lee, alive but ill, is being treated the way so many deceased authors are: as ideas rather than people, as brands and businesses rather than messy collections of doubts and desires.

We won’t know. We can’t know. All we will have, in the end, is a book, a thing that will raise as many questions as it answers. And, for better or for worse, that is probably just how Harper Lee … would prefer things.

Garber is right, in the main. We can ask questions, we can speculate, we can rehash old arguments about whether this kind of thing is worth it or better left undone. But what it all comes down to—at least for right now—is a book, and one that only a few have read. All we know, for sure, is the title and a few details of plot and setting. The rest is silence, until July.

There will be plenty of time, then, to talk about its merits, or lack of them, and whether this ought to have been done.

It is a great title. It comes from Isaiah 21:3-6, where the prophet compares his pain over the captivity in Babylon to the pain of a woman in childbirth.

Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it. My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me. Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield. For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

Lee’s only book until now, To Kill a Mockingbird, is so incredibly and astonishingly good that there is no way anything else she wrote could equal it. And no one should expect her to have done that. So if that is what people go in wanting or expecting, they will be disappointed. They would be setting themselves up for it. And it is a false expectation in any case.

Go Set a Watchman will be its own book. That is all it can be or should be. So I am content to withhold judgment on it until I read it, and hope that there are some nice surprises waiting for me there. But even a dud can not ruin To Kill a Mockingbird.

Still, I can not wait until July.

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