The Return of Harper Lee: By Choice or Coercion?

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, will release a new novel July 14 entitled Go Set a Watchman. The novel, “features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort,” says Lee. “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.”

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961 and was made into a movie in 1962. Gregory Peck won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in the movie, which by many is considered to be an American classic.

Go Set a Watchman is about Jean Louise Finch (better known as Scout), returning to her hometown to visit her father, a lawyer by the name of Atticus Finch. “[Scout] is 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,” says Lee. “I… was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered [the novel]. 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.”

Lee retired from public life soon publishing of To Kill a Mockingbird and has not release another work of fiction despite overwhelming demand. She told an interviewer in 1964 – her last major piece of publicity – that “I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place,” and that the reaction was “just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected … like being hit over the head and knocked cold.”

There has been speculation as to whether the Go Set a Watchman is being published morally given that Lee, at this point in her life, may not be capable of making a sound decision for the book and her career. The 88 year old author is blind and partially deaf, leaving the press to question Lee’s capability to make such a decision. This compounded with the fact that the authors lawyer and sister passed away late last year (at the age of 103), leaving the intensely private author vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart, makes one question whether or not the publication is sound. Lee’s sister wrote in 2011: “Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”

Lee’s current lawyer, Tonja Carter, says that “Lee is a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long-lost novel. Instead she is having to defend her own credibility and decision-making.” Ms. Carter said that Lee has said she is “extremely hurt and humiliated” at the suggestion she has been duped into the publication.

Go Set a Watchman will be very different from Lee’s first novel. Readers ought to be ready to see “a much more raw text” as the book was unedited. Considering how important editing was to the creation of To Kill a Mockingbird, the new text may feel and read differently than what readers are used to from Lee. Not only this, but the themes explored in To Kill a Mockingbird, specifically the theme of racism, will be read by a very different audience given the era. The views on race, class, and gender in modern America are very different from that of 1960’s America. For this reason, readers need to look at the text through the lens of the time period the novel was written in rather than the modern day lens we all look through everyday. 

The question we ought to be asking ourselves as consumers of a book from the past in a society so driven by the future, especially in terms of liberal progressivism, is how this book will be perceived by modern readers.  The quote from To Kill a Mockingbird “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skinAl and walk around in it,” is relevant now to both Lee’s career and those who intend on reading the new novel. It is important that we as readers consider the time period and lens in which Lee wrote this novel, and read the book as a period piece rather than the anecdote many consider To Kill a Mockingbird to be. Go Set a Watchman is a window into the artwork of a writer we have all come to cherish. The novel itself is a gift fans never thought they would be given, and as consumers it is important to recognize the legacy Harper Lee continues to develop through the new novel. •