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How will Harper Lee’s ‘Mockingbird’ follow-up impact her reputation?
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel served not only as Lee’s glorious debut but her swansong as well; the reclusive author all but disappeared after its 1960 publication while the voices of her brilliantly drawn characters spoke for her to generations of high school English students.
Nearly 55 years later, the silence – rather unexpectedly – is over. (Or is it?)
Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, lit up the web Tuesday with its announcement that it will release “Go Set a Watchmen” – an earlier Lee novel with allusions to her classic tale – July 14.
For those with their jaws on the floor, the New York-based publisher helpfully released a statement from the 88-year-old author.
“In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called ‘Go Set a Watchman.’ 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.”
Count NIU’s Amy Newman among the enthusiastic.
Lee’s first novel earned its required-reading status, Newman says, through “themes of innocence and ethics and also, maybe, the more complex aspects and understanding of American’s racial history.”
“ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a wonderful book, a wonderful read,” says Newman, a professor in the Department of English whose specialties include creative writing and 20th century American literature.
“Her style was so crisp and beautiful. I can still remember the description of the women on the porch in the heat who were like ‘soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,’ ” she adds. “If this is anything like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in its writing style – if that style is intact in this earlier manuscript – it’s going to be a pleasure to read.”
Newman is also among the surprised to hear from Lee again.
She points to the story of French artist Marcel Duchamp’s “Étant donnés,” a sculpture that appeared nearly 25 years after his last major work.
“People thought he had stopped,” she says, adding that “Étant donnés” forced connoisseurs of art to “take the whole sense of him not being in the field and then recalibrate” their feelings about his reappearance and the latest addition to his body of work.
For a writer to withdraw for so long and then return is unprecedented, she adds. Scholars of Harper Lee might have known that such a manuscript existed, she says, but most book lovers were unaware.
“This is an interesting development. Harper Lee has said a couple times that she wouldn’t write again, that it’s better to be silent than a fool,” Newman says. “She’s also shied away from doing any publicity, perhaps because she felt that the writing and the creation of the work spoke for itself, and all of the other stuff was quite uncomfortable.”
Without a chance yet to read “Go Set a Watchmen,” Newman envisions two scenarios of how the book might impact Lee’s reputation after its July arrival.
“In our age of quick decisions, people may say that it’s not as good, or that there’s a reason why it wasn’t published all those years ago,” she says. “Questions about releasing the book, and maybe the publisher’s desire for profit, might hit the media for a 24-hour cycle with articles written about the damage it could do.”
But no matter the quality of “Watchmen” nor the swift judgments of social media-enabled armchair critics, Newman is sure of one thing.
“It can’t possibly hurt ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ because the book is unimpeachable. It can’t have a retroactively negative impact on a beautiful piece of work,” she says.
“Everyone who loved Scout’s voice in the first novel is looking to hear from her again. Everyone who loved Atticus Finch and his long view – his ethical long view – is hoping for more,” she adds. “Atticus himself reminded us that it’s a sin to kill the mockingbird, who only sings beautifully. If the book doesn’t live up to the hype, we’ll all remember what is right and beautiful about the first novel.”