A lot has happened in the fifty-five years since Harper Lee’s debut novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published. Here are a few important things to know about Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, before it’s published in July.
It’s sort of a sequel, but not really. Lee actually wrote this manuscript before she wrote the text that was to become To Kill a Mockingbird. Her editor particularly enjoyed the flashbacks during which we hear from young Scout, and encouraged Lee to write more from that perspective, thus To Kill a Mockingbird was born. This isn’t a sequel and it isn’t a prequel; it’s just another novel that includes some of our favorite characters.
This is a really exciting thing that’s happening. There has already been so much hype about Go Set a Watchman. Harper Lee has not released a book since To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, which, given the popularity of the novel, has disappointed a lot of readers. Lee’s reasoning was twofold – she didn’t want to go through the rigors of another press tour and she had already said everything she needed to say. So the fact that, fifty-five years after her debut novel was published, Lee is giving us more to love is really special.
We need to adjust our expectations. Regardless of how exciting the publication of this book is, we need to keep in mind that it is not another To Kill a Mockingbird. There will never be another To Kill a Mockingbird, and to compare the two novels is unfair, even if they do share an author. Go Set a Watchman is its own work, with its own plot and character development, its own wisdom and humor and poignancy, and its own story to tell. We need to let it stand on its own before we stand it right next to its predecessor.
This publication is not without controversy. Harper Lee will be eighty-nine years old next month. She suffered a stroke several years ago which left her wheelchair-bound and with significant vision and hearing loss. Given her age and her declining physical ability, many people have questioned her mental faculties as well. Is Harper Lee in a place mentally and emotionally where she can understand what it means to give consent for Go Set a Watchman to be published? Her sister, Alice, a prominent lawyer in their hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, died last November at age 103. Until her death, Alice acted as Lee’s caregiver and companion, often speaking for her and handling her legal affairs. The timing of the announcement of Go Set a Watchman’s publication is suspect to some, given how quickly after Alice’s death it came. It does bring forth an important discussion about what we consider to be acceptable cognitive function and emotional health. How do we determine whether someone is capable of making a life-changing decision? Who determines that? The New York Times has done a lot more research on the subject than I have. And feel free to go down the rabbit hole; these articles from Jezebel, NPR, and the Daily Beast are a few good places to start.
We don’t deserve this. I love to read. I love it when I discover a new (or new to me) author whom I can grow to love. There are few things more exciting to me than an impressive debut novel, because it often promises many more novels to enjoy in the years to come. However, sometimes it doesn’t. Some authors are incredibly prolific, with careers spanning decades and dozens of titles in their repertoire. But some authors are one and done. And that’s okay. We as readers have no right to what’s inside an author’s mind. We don’t get to claim her thoughts and demand that they be put into writing so that we may read them as often as we want. Elizabeth Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights. Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind. J. D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye. Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man. And none of them followed up with a second novel. Do we respect them or their work any less? No. It is vitally important that we not only respect an author’s intellectual property as her own, but that we also respect an author’s decision to write as few or as many books as she wants to.
Harper Lee writes in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” We will most likely never understand why Go Set a Watchman has been fifty-five years in the making. We will probably never truly understand whether or not Harper Lee’s wishes are being followed with the publication of it. What I do know for sure is Harper Lee’s writing is some of the purest, loveliest, and most honest I have ever read and I can’t wait for more.