Harper Lee made an announcement on Feb 3, 2015 that caused the waters of the literary world to ripple: “Go Set a Watchman,” the surprise sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” will be published this July. The 300-page manuscript was written in the 1950s as the tale of an adult Scout Finch who revisits Maycomb, Alabama and must reconcile her father’s morals with her hometown’s racist tendencies. After literary agents urged her to focus on Scout’s childhood instead, “Go Set a Watchman” was shelved and forgotten, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published.
More than 50 years ago, “To Kill a Mockingbird” hit the shelves. The novel, which depicted Scout Finch’s childhood in the midst of Maycomb, Alabama’s racial disputes, quickly became a bestseller, won a Pulitzer Prize and paved the way for Lee’s Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Arts. Even in 2015, the book remains a favorite, selling more than 40 million copies, and was elected “Best Novel of the 20th Century” by the Library Journal.
Since Lee published “To Kill a Mockingbird,” she has all but vanished from the public eye, giving few interviews and public appearances. Aside from a few essays and futile attempts at a book about an Alabamian serial killer and a different sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Lee has written remarkably little during the past half-century. When asked why, she answered, “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.” Lee instead chose to reside in her Monroeville, Alabama home as a recluse and aided her close friend, Truman Capote, during the 1960s in his research for the bestselling book, “In Cold Blood.” As an 88 year old, Lee lives in an assisted living facility and reports having much vision and hearing loss as well as some memory loss.
Due to Lee’s statement coupled with her old age, it’s not a shock that the public and literary worlds were caught off guard by her announcement. This year’s publication of “Go Set a Watchman,” while a welcome treat for the millions of Lee’s fans around the world, does raise some legitimate questions. How had the single manuscript copy of Go “Set a Watchman” mysteriously disappeared for a half century before one of Lee’s lawyers found it in 2014? If Lee’s statements about the manuscript being in her safety deposit box are true, could the document have been removed from its hiding place without her consent? What mental condition is Lee in as an 88 year old, and is there a possibility she was pushed to publish her book by HarperCollins? Why publish this book in 2015 when it could have been released in the 1960s? All these questions and more are raised by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the scores of Lee’s fans.
Even some residents of Monroeville, Alabama expressed some worry about the abrupt publication.
“It’s apparent she never wanted this to be done, because she would have done it earlier,” said one Monroeville native.
Two family friends reported to the Associated Press that since her sister Alice’s funeral last year, Lee has often talked to herself loudly.
Adding to some of the suspicion surrounding the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” is a statement from Lee herself, who reported being surprised and delighted after her lawyer Tonja Carter mysteriously found a copy of the presumedly nonexistent manuscript.
Others in Monroeville, including some of her close friends and neighbors, place their confidence in Lee’s state of mind and believes she was fully involved in the publication of “Go Set a Watchman.”
“Does she understand what’s going on? If you make her hear, she can understand what’s going on,” historian Wayne Flint said.
Despite the disagreement on the circumstances surrounding Lee’s announcement, all would concur with Melinda Byrd Murphy’s statement.
“My perspective has been this: I just wish her well,” Murphy explained.
Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons.