The Reclusive Harper Lee, Her New Novel and Her Fans

Harper Lee Smokes
The author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee.

In 1960, Harper Lee published her first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. It was an unexpected, immediate and enduring success. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and in 2007 Harper Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, for her contribution to literature, which at the time was this single novel.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a staple in high school curriculums. Set during the Great Depression in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, the story deals with racial prejudice, class, gender roles, laws, those both written and unwritten, the loss of innocence, compassion and courage through the eyes (though not the vocabulary) of the 6 year old Scout. The central plot line revolves around the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Scout’s father, Atticus, is the lawyer appointed to defend Robinson. His agreement to defend Robinson stirs resentment in the white community of Maycomb. Atticus is tasked with explaining the mechanics of racial prejudice, justice, and compassion to his daughter, and these simplified explanations of complex social problems are a part of the novel’s enduring impact and poignancy.

A still from the film ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ starring Gregory Peck.

After the enormous and unexpected success of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee made several attempts to write again but ‘her pen froze’ said her agent, J.P. Lippincott. Now, however, a second novel is to be published in July this year, unleashing a deluge of commentary and controversy. Go Set A Watchman is reportedly a sequel to Lee’s famous first novel. It was written before To Kill A Mockingbird in the 1950s and was set aside by her editor’s suggestion. This imminent publication tells the story of an adult Scout returning to her hometown to visit her father and her reflections on the events of her youth and her own moral compass.

The announcement of the upcoming publication of Go Set A Watchman was met with glee as well as suspicion and gave rise to much controversy, particularly regarding 88 year old Lee’s competency after suffering a stroke in 2007. The manuscript was purportedly found among some papers by Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter. The timing of this find has troubled many. A mere year earlier, Alice,  Lee’s sister, defendant and lawyer passed away. This gave rise to the question of whether Harper Lee has been taken advantage of. After all, Alice herself said that Harper is willing to ‘sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence‘. It is also undeniable that a second novel, regardless of its merit, will sell well. Indeed, Bookseller reported that this is ‘as big as it gets for new fiction’. Harper Lee claimed in a 2011 interview that she never wrote again for ‘two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again’. Four years later however, Lee is reportedly ‘happy as hell‘ to see Go Set A Watchman go to publication.

go set a watchman
Harper Lee’s new novel ‘Go Set a Watchman’…

The discovery of this manuscript also gives rise to an exploration of what readers feel they deserve from their favourite authors. Do Harper Lee’s ardent fans deserve the chance to reach back into the world and the characters they that know, love and often name their children after?  The phenomenal success of To Kill A Mockingbird stunned Harper Lee and the accompanying publicity and focus on her personal life resulted in a gradual retreat from the public arena. Indeed, the overwhelming success of her first novel perhaps caused the freezing of her pen. Lee once told her cousin, Dickie Williams, that ‘when you’re at the top, there is only one way to go.’

Could this second novel live up to its famous and revered predecessor? Is anyone expecting it to? The nature of this sequel would suggest not on both counts. It is an abandoned manuscript that served as a first draft to the much-loved modern classic. This work cannot be expected to be a carefully devised sequel. Indeed, the 304 page work has not been edited since it was put aside. This in itself may lower expectations. On the other hand, this work is unburdened by Lee’s huge success with her first novel. These characters have taken on lives outside the novel itself. Indeed, the Michigan Law Review stated that ‘no real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession’ than Atticus Finch. This new work is unburdened by the staggering significance of its predecessor and its characters. Instead, readers will be given the chance to see these characters in their more essential form, as Harper Lee first envisaged them.

It seems that while the circumstances surrounding the publication of Go Set A Watchman may never become clear, the publication itself can only be positive. With the controversial and tragic deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner last year it seems the United States justice system remains as flawed as it was for Tom Robinson. The controversy surrounding this publication has surely caused many readers to revisit Lee’s first novel and perhaps the values of courage, compassion and empathy have been refreshed in their minds. And another novel preaching racial tolerance and compassion can only be welcomed in any era, but perhaps particularly in America today.

Madeleine Stark

Madeleine grew up next to a beach with a lighthouse. She has freshly graduated from a Bachelor of Communications in Writing and Cultural Studies.

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