I nearly fell off my chair when I heard the shocking, glee-inducing news that rocked the literary world and books lovers everywhere: Harper Lee will be publishing a long-awaited second novel this summer. The book is titled Go Set a Watchman and it will be available July 14th—remarkably, nearly 55 years to the day that her sole previous novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published. Even more remarkable: Go Set a Watchman, written before To Kill a Mockingbird and put aside, is a sequel of sorts, told from the perspective of an adult Scout (Lee has apparently referred to it as the “parent to Mockingbird”).
This is mind-boggling. In fact, when I first heard this news, via a colleague’s Facebook page, I commented: my mind is being blown right now!!!! Harper Lee has been considered a “one hit wonder” for decades. She’s been in good company: Margaret Mitchell and Ralph Ellison, for example, also published a single novel during their lifetimes. Granted, Lee’s one “hit” is considered a masterpiece; it’s taught in just about every middle school or high school in the country; it is held in high esteem for its social commentary on difficult topics, including racism and social inequality; and it won Lee the Pulitzer Prize. For some, To Kill a Mockingbird is not just their favorite book—it is the book. I know that for many students this may very well be the only book they enjoyed reading when they were in school. I had a friend in college who would send Harper Lee a birthday card every year, in spite of Lee’s staunch reclusiveness. As far as I know, my friend never received a letter or card in return; I think she just wanted to reach out to the woman who had given her such a gift.
At 88-years-old, Harper Lee is officially trending. Twitter is blowing up in response to news of a sequel: snarky title suggestions, fanboy and fangirl exultations, and baffled realizations that Harper Lee is not a man (I thought everyone knew Harper Lee is a woman…silly me). However, some are questioning the motivation and timing of this announcement. The decision to publish a new work over half a century after To Kill a Mockingbird and less than three months after the death of Lee’s older sister and protector, Alice (whom Harper dubbed “Atticus in a skirt”), leave many to wonder whether Lee’s hand is being forced. Jezebel warns that we should be suspicious of the new Harper Lee novel. I can understand the trickiness of this situation. I like to think—I like to hope—that the canon will be better because of this book, that it will add something meaningful to literary discourse. So that at least is something. Selfishly, I want to know what happens to the Finch family. I want to see how this book stacks up against the “original;” if Go Set a Watchman is clearly the work of a novice, while To Kill a Mockingbird is evidence of a more mature and nuanced artist.
If nothing else, I hope news of the sequel will direct new readers toward To Kill a Mockingbird and encourage old friends to give it a second or third or fourth read. In literature and in life, few towns have stirred the soul as much as the fictional Maycomb, Alabama.