Almost 54 years to the day after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee will publish her second novel.
This is about as big as publishing events get. Lee’s Mockingbird is among the most widely-read and celebrated works of fiction from the 20th century, and Lee hasn’t so much as hinted that she’s been keeping another novel stashed away in a drawer. But Go Set a Watchman is exactly that: a “new” novel that is new only to us, as Lee completed the text in the mid-1950s, before she ever wrote Mockingbird.
Though written first, Watchman reads as a sort-of-sequel to Mockingbird, following an adult Scout as she returns from New York to her hometown of Maycomb toce visit Atticus, her father. The publisher’s announcement describes Scout as “forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.”
Lee said in a statement:
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.
The whole thing sounds like something out of a spy movie: Carter found the Go Set a Watchman manuscript in “a secure location.” It was attached to an original typescript of Mockingbird. Think about it, just for a second. You’re going through the offices in some “secure location” — maybe some noir-ish office that smells like scotch and cigarettes — and there it is, not just a map to buried treasure but the buried treasure itself. Harper Lee’s long-lost first novel. Paper curling at the corners. Ink older than NASA.
But Lee’s relationship with Carter is a complicated one, as is just about everything else involving the current state and legacy of the author. Lee has been reclusive, mysterious, and generally unwilling to be interviewed for her entire career. Now 88 years old, Lee is in increasingly poor health. After a stroke in 2007, she had to move into an assisted-living facility where she is confined to a wheelchair, essentially deaf and blind. Her older sister, Alice, had long managed her affairs. The two shared a house in Monroeville, Alabama, where Lee still resides. But at age 100, Alice retired. She died three years later.
Carter was Alice’s successor (Alice, in turn, had inherited her partnership in the family law firm from her father, after whom Atticus Finch was modeled; Alice, Harper used to say, was “Atticus in a skirt.”). Through Carter, Lee dismissed a 2012 biography about her, The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills, as “unauthorized,” but Alice maintained that Carter had stirred up many of those objections herself. Now that Alice is gone, and Lee does not communicate directly with the public, Carter’s word is all we have. So readers have to be willing to take it on faith that Carter is representing Lee’s interests, that this statement really did come from Lee, and that this is the book Lee wanted out in the world.
What we do know for sure are the basic stats. Watchman will be released on July 14. It will be 304 pages long. The first printing will be 2 million copies. And it will be the first new novel of Lee’s that we get to see in over 50 years. The book will be released as-is. Zero revisions. Watchman is set in the time in which Lee wrote it, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. (1955 was the year of Emmett Till’s murder and Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat in the front of the bus.) Though Lee has publicly declared her affection for books of the dead-tree variety, Watchman will be available as an e-book, as Mockingbird has been since last year.
Mockingbird is so entrenched in our culture that it’s easy to take its ubiquity and impact for granted. They just don’t make literary behemoths like they used to: To Kill a Mockingbird is, by almost every metric, an exceptional work. Since its release on July 11, 1960, it has sold over 40 million copies worldwide. It continues to sell nearly one million copies a year. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize; the movie won its star, Gregory Peck, an Oscar. It is one of the most frequently banned books in America and one of the most beloved. For its 50th anniversary in 2010, over 50 events were held across the country to honor Mockingbird. In Monroeville, festivities lasted for four days.
Rarely does one work enjoy both extraordinary popularity and widespread critical acclaim. Usually readers force books to pick a lane: best-selling paperbacks devoured by the many and highbrow literature fêted by the few. It’s funny, given our guilty-pleasure-complex about grown-ups reading young adult fiction, that the stories that get to be commercial and critical successes are often books like Mockingbird, classics we all read as teenagers: The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Giver.
But Lee and Mockingbird transcend, quietly and consistently holding a place on that shelf of books you’d grab if your house were on fire. Atticus is still snagging spots on “best fictional dads” lists. Katniss, heroine of The Hunger Games, is symbolized by a a mockingjay, a creature invented by Suzanne Collins and clearly named as a tribute (Hunger Games pun!) to Lee’s classic.
Our culture is as fragmented as smashed glass. Every niche is a gateway to some other, even more hyper-specific interest or genre or space, and you can zero on in the stuff that lights you up until you nestle inside the narrowest, teeniest, never-heard-of-it-est nook that you share with maybe seven other humans. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the few universal touchstones we still have. It’s a shorthand that everybody understands, a book to which every adult who attended middle or high school in the United States has been exposed. Everybody’s read it, or skimmed it, or crammed with the Cliff’s Notes, or watched the movie. Everybody’s cracked the jokes. No one knows who the first person was to say “Tequila Mockingbird,” but I can pretty much guarantee it wasn’t you.
What else we can expect from this old-but-new novel? Maybe there’s a clue in the title, which sounds like a reference to this Isaiah 21:6 passage: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Let the rampant speculation begin.