By Kurt Anthony Krug
The recent announcement that Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman – the sequel to 1960’s To Kill A Mockingbird, her first and thus far only novel – will be published in July has been met with either joyous excitement or eyebrow-raising apprehension.
Mockingbird – which still sells 750,000 copies annually, has been translated into dozens of languages, and is taught in countless high school English classes across the nation – is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala. during the Great Depression and narrated by Jean Louise Finch, alias Scout, a six-year-old girl. Scout recounts how her father Atticus Finch, a noble and crusading attorney, defends a black man named Tom Robinson who is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. Even though the racist townspeople know Tom is innocent, he is nonetheless still found guilty.
Lee, 88, won the Pulitzer Prize for Mockingbird, which was adapted into the 1962 movie of the same name, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus and Mary Badham as Scout. It also marked the film debut of Robert Duvall. The movie won three of its eight Oscar nominations; Peck won an Oscar for his performance. The movie also won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and for Best Art Direction.
“The themes are timeless,” explained Robert J. Fox, an English teacher at Ann Arbor Huron High School. “It is the quintessential American story – for better or for worse. The themes are very relatable, particularly the coming of age journey (Scout) takes – the innocence of childhood. The moment when childhood loses its innocence. And of course, the race angle, which is as relevant today as it was when it was written, particularly in light of the recent events in Ferguson (Mo.). I always explain to my students how the book was written in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and it was holding a mirror up to the 1930s when the story takes place. It was as though Lee was saying, ‘Look where we WERE, and then look where we ARE today. How much is different? How much is the same?’ These questions can still be asked today in 2015.”
Slated for a July 14 release through HarperCollins, Watchman occurs 20 years after the events of Mockingbird. In it, Scout – now an adult – travels from New York and returns to Maycomb to visit Atticus.
The deal was negotiated by Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins, via Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter. Watchman was written prior to Mockingbird. The original manuscript of the novel was considered to have been lost until fall 2014 when Carter discovered it in a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of Mockingbird.
“I, along with millions of others around the world, always wished that Harper Lee had written another book. And what a brilliant book this is. I love [Watchman] and know that this masterpiece will be revered for generations to come,” Morrison said in a statement.
The story behind this novel’s path to publication is equally compelling as the novel itself. A very private individual, Lee – who has declined numerous interviews over the years – vowed that she would never write another novel, much less a sequel to her seminal classic.
And yet, a sequel was announced.
“She wrote one of the greatest books in all of literature, and it always felt like we were somehow cheated out of her greatness. There was always this great mystique about the fact that she had this one great book... Part of me will miss being able to tell students about this side of her legacy,” explained Fox. “Then again, who wants to be just a one-hit wonder? I always felt a little sorry for her. I wonder, was all of her success too much pressure to handle? It’s sort of a blessing and a curse to have your first release be such a huge success. The pressure to follow that up for anyone must be immense. I mean, how can you possibly top that level of greatness? You would always be compared to that first great thing.”
The sequel’s timing could not be more suspect.
Lee reportedly is in poor health. She suffered a stroke in 2007 and is legally blind and deaf. She currently lives in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, Ala. In 2013, she sued literary agent Samuel Pinkus, alleging he exploited her age and declining health by tricking her into signing over the ownership to Mockingbird. The case was settled later that year out of court; details of the settlement were not made public.
Now, several months after Lee’s sister Alice – who was also her attorney and handler – died, the release of Watchman was announced at the beginning of February. Teacher Aimee Grant, one of Fox’s colleagues at Huron, finds this suspicious and feels those involved are going against Lee’s wishes not to publish again.
“I wish other news organizations were more selective and informed about their reporting because quotes that Lee is ‘happy as hell’ to publish ring false, given her physical condition of being mostly blind and deaf. That’s hardly likely given from a great writer like Lee,” said Grant.
Steve Lehto, a Michigan-based attorney and author, echoed Grant’s misgivings.
“People around (Lee) have been pushing her unduly for years. Lee has a long history of being abused by various people around her. For years, her sister took care of her affairs and shielded her. Lee is famously reclusive,” said Lehto. “But in more recent years there have been documented examples of people taking advantage of her. She suffers some physical handicaps and she either is easy to persuade OR she will often say and do things to appease people who manage to get too close to her.”
Fox added: “Was she pressured (into releasing Watchman)? I hope not. I truly hope she has decided to do this with a right mind and without being fleeced or duped by anyone trying to make a quick buck at the expense of her legacy.”
The controversy surrounding Watchman aside, the question remains: Will it be as good as Mockingbird?
“Nothing on Earth can top Mockingbird, not even Lee herself,” said Fox. “However, I’m sure it will be a huge best-seller. I don’t think it’s possible that it can be as good; however, I am hopeful and certain that her talent ensures a good to great book. I hope her trusted circle of associates who told her the book was great are 100 percent certain. If the book is good – and ideally great – then there should be no regrets about her decision – and any powers behind that decision – to publish the book.”
New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer, an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia University Law School, said that Mockingbird is his favorite book ever. He’s looking forward to Watchman.
“I couldn’t be more excited or more anxious to see a sequel,” said Meltzer. “Like any other sequel, it’s all in the execution.”
Grant, however, doesn’t plan on reading Watchman.
“It would feel like a violation, and I don’t think I’d take pleasure in it,” she said. “Mockingbird is still so widely read because there are many layers to it that make it a wonderful puzzle for literary detectives to put together. At the same time, it’s a simple story of a young girl who is learning how strange, funny, and horrifying the world she occupies really is.”
Fox plans to read it, though, but will approach it cautiously.
“However, if it – God forbid – gets poor reviews, I feel like the best way to preserve her legacy is to not read it at all,” said Fox. “I will read it objectively and not constantly try to compare it to the greatness that is her other book. I'm sure it will be tough. For anybody.”
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