Everyone knows Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most iconic novels of the twentieth century. So when plans for a sequel to appear in July were announced by Harper Collins, it was a bombshell, especially considering that Lee has not published a novel since the 1960 classic. Harper Collins is apparently counting on plenty of demand, announcing an initial print run of 2 million copies.
Titled Go Set A Watchman, the novel is not a new piece of writing by Lee. In fact, it pre-dates To Kill A Mockingbird. In this story, Scout is an adult, though it includes flashbacks to her childhood. It was those flashbacks that prompted the publisher to which the book was originally submitted to suggest to Lee that she write a complete new novel based on her character’s childhood. The result was To Kill A Mockingbird. The manuscript to the earlier novel was lost, but it was recently found, and now it’s a white hot literary property.
After a 55-year wait for a second novel, who wouldn’t want to read it? But it is that 55-year drought, along with some other long-held speculation, that makes the new novel suspect, and, maybe, a disappointment, though the final proof will be in the novel itself.
The question that hangs over Harper Lee is why hasn’t she published more novels, given the monumental, legendary status of To Kill A Mockingbird? Her long silence has created the same kind of feeding frenzy that the promised new work from J.D. Salinger engendered. But that big market for her work could also be driving publication of a mediocre work.
As a writer, my best guess is that she didn’t publish because she couldn’t create anything that comes even close to To Kill A Mockingbird. But that just leads to another question. Why couldn’t she?
In fact, a whole bunch of red flags are raised by the publication of this early novel at such a late date.
First of all, if it was a good piece of writing, why didn’t the publisher it was first submitted to just publish it instead of basically suggesting that Harper Lee start over on a new book? It sounds like the publisher was trying to find a soft way to send a message that this novel wasn’t good enough. If it wasn’t good enough then, it probably still isn’t. If that’s the case, the novel is being published on the basis of its author’s reputation, not on the merit of the novel itself.
Second, after the sensational success of To Kill A Mockingbird, why didn’t they follow up with Go Set A Watchman? Harper Lee could have published just about anything at that point and a large audience would have read it. The fact that the publisher didn’t apparently think it deserved publication, even though it was a sequel to the big book, speaks volumes (no pun intended).
Third, literary tastes and styles change. What was high art fifty years ago might not be a big splash today. That’s why I think when the delayed writings of J.D. Salinger appear, though they will be read with interest, they will not be the literary monoliths they could have been if they had been published decades ago as they should have been. The same is true of Harper Lee’s work. Even if Go Set A Watchman is great writing, which I doubt it is, its time may have passed and it may seem dated. Like most things in life, and in writing, timing is important.
Finally, there is the rampant speculation that To Kill A Mockingbird is a great work because it is a collaborative effort between Lee and Truman Capote. Capote was her childhood friend, confidante, and, many believe, an uncredited co-writer on To Kill A Mockingbird. The conspiracy theory is that because Mockingbird was a far more popular and acclaimed novel than any of Capote’s books, he was envious of her success, especially as she never fully acknowledged his contributions to the book. Mostly she has been silent, refusing all interviews.
The truth is, we will probably never know the extent of Capote’s involvement in the creation of Mockingbird, but given Lee’s dearth of writing for more than five decades, there will always be the suspicion that Capote was an integral part of the process that led to Mockingbird,
And there’s one final question I have to ask. Is the version of Go Set A Watchman coming out this summer the same one Lee originally penned, or has someone done what Capote did for Mockingbird, elevated the writing because it needed a serious rewrite?
So many questions. So few answers. But readers probably shouldn’t get too excited about the prospect of reading another Mockingbird. That bird may have already flown.