February 4, 2015

Half a century after To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee publishes second novel

by

Harper-Lee

Guess who’s back?

It was the news that launched a thousand identical reactions, hundreds of international headlines, and a race for the wittiest Twitter response. Harper Lee, the 88-year old author of To Kill a Mockingbird is to publish her second novel.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the Pulitzer Prize-winning modern classic that has sold more than 40 million copies since it was first published in 1960, and continues to sell a million copies every year. It has been translated into 40 languages, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 and has had a firm place on American and English school curriculums for decades.

Harper Lee has remained famous since 1960 for two reasons. Number one, she is the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Number two, she is the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and nothing else. For fifty-five years Lee has not published another work of fiction and has instead remained fiercely private.

Yesterday, in a statement released through her publisher, Penguin Random House, Lee announced that finally a second book, Go Set a Watchman, would be published this summer. The novel is not newly-written, but was actually completed before To Kill a Mockingbird, as Lee revealed: 

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 from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.

That novel was To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee had no idea that Go Set a Watchman had survived. She was “surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it”. The manuscript was found “in a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird”.

Unlike so many other follow-up publications, it’s a relief to know this novel was not written as a quick cash-in. Harper Lee was not the author of To Kill a Mockingbird when she wrote Go Set a Watchman. She was not exhausted by the publicity of her first novel, nor could she be self-conscious about its legacy. And yet the familiar characters make it the perfect pre/sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, and will satisfy everyone who has waited for half a century for more of Lee’s fiction:

The mid-1950s-set work features Scout’s father, Atticus, as well as other characters from Lee’s debut. Set 20 years on, it sees Scout return to Maycomb from New York to visit her father. “She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand both her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood,” said the publisher.

It’s not clear whether the publication of Go Set a Watchman was prompted by anything other than the re-discovered manuscript. Lee has been in and out of the public eye in the past few years. In 2013 Lee sued her literary agent Samuel Pinkus for apparently having “duped” her into giving away the rights to To Kill a Mockingbird. In 2014 Lee sued the Monroe County Heritage Museum for taking advantage of her name and book to sell souvenirs.

As well as this, she spoke out against the literary memoir The Mockingbird Next Door in which Marja Mills described her time living next door to Lee and her sister. Lee’s sister, Alice Lee, had recently died and Lee claimed that Mills had essentially taken advantage of her 100-year-old sister, and her own poor health. Mills denied this. According to an article on Jezebel Lee’s sister Alice “ferociously protected Harper Lee’s estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades”; the same article suggested that Lee is now potentially vulnerable to “people who may not have her best interests at heart”. Lee, as the Jezebel article reports, is widely believed to be senile. The question as to how exactly this manuscript remained lost—or if it was lost at all—is an interesting one, and it’s all the more interesting given the questions Jezebel raises—that report is largely reliant on an excellent piece about Lee’s complicated legal affairs that was written by Michelle Dean last summer.

The New York Times seems to be paying attention: their initial piece, which essentially served as an announcement of the book’s publication was later amended to note that “some critics and observers were skeptical about Ms. Lee’s role” in the publication.

And there is certainly reason to be skeptical. We’ll hopefully learn more about the  publication of Go Set a Watchman and Lee’s involvement in it in the coming days and weeks. Regardless, it’s certain that Lee’s new novel will be a hit with every generation of To Kill a Mockingbird fans.

 

Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.

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