To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1960 and for more than 50 years was the only novel Harper Lee ever published. A notoriously shy person, Lee’s reasons for never completing or publishing another work were never fully disclosed. Theories included her not wanting to deal with being thrown back into the media spotlight (she said of her success with Mockingbird, “in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death [at the hands of the critics] I’d expected.”), that she wouldn’t be able to repeat the novel’s success, or that her good friend Truman Capote actually wrote her lauded novel.
Lee shocked the literary community earlier this year when it was announced that she would publish again, a novel called Go Set a Watchman. As the story goes, Watchman was actually written in the 1950’s before Mockingbird. Lee’s editor was displeased with the work and suggested retaining the characters but changing the story to one dealing with Scout’s childhood. After a good bit of soap opera (deaths, changes in who held power of attorney over Lee’s affairs, a state inquiry into accusations of elder abuse, and many articles alleging that Lee was being taken advantage of) on July 14th the world will have Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel.
A question looms, though. How is this release going to affect the literary community? Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, giving Lee a flawless literary reputation (if only by default). Her work is read by most every junior high student, most people can tell you at least one trivial fact from the novel, most people have probably seen the movie, etc. Many regard Lee as one of America’s greatest authors. HarperCollins, who is releasing Watchman, has said that the manuscript has not been revised; what they “found” is what is going to be published. Remember, though, that this is the novel that Lee’s first editor said wasn’t good enough. Who knows how much time Lee spent revising Watchman, if any, or who else may have made changes with or without Lee’s approval? These are details for which there are no public answers. The only thing that can be said for sure is that short of Watchman being on par with Mockingbird (the probability of which seems highly unlikely), Lee’s reputation is going to be tarnished, relatively speaking.
The fact remains, though, that this is one of the biggest literary events of a lifetime. As hopeful as I am that it will be met with acclaim, I’m not so sure that it will be. Regardless, though, I already have my copy on reserve at my local bookshop and have requested the day off to devour it. The silver lining in all of this is that it is bound to bring Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird back into the hearts and minds of many, where she deserves to be. -ADAM PRIBILAView image | gettyimages.com