FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Mocking the Mockingbird

Did Harper Lee want her “second” novel published? Is it, in fact, a second novel? The mystery surrounding the sudden appearance of a “new” novel by Harper Lee is probably nothing more than publisher’s greed, aided no doubt by the greed of others. The manuscript for Go Set a Watchman, we are told, was recently discovered attached to (or at least after) the original manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird, and HarperCollins has announced a July publication. C’mon, are we supposed to believe that no one knew it was there, especially Harper Lee? Yes, she may have forgotten where it was, because there are hints that Lee has memory problems (she’s eighty-eight years old and has suffered a stroke), but certainly for decades she must have known where it was and chose not to publish it.

We do know that Go Set a Watchman was actually the first novel Lee wrote, rejected by a publisher (Lippincott) sometime before To Kill a Mockingbird was even a dream. What we don’t know is whether the first novel she wrote is any good. Just because a publisher rejected it tells us nothing. Publishers reject novels all the time that later, when published, become major books, classics in fact. So the fact that the book was rejected is meaningless. If the details are correct, however, Lee was told to take her main character, a woman named Scout, and move the story backward, which she did for To Kill a Mockingbird. So that was the novel that was published, and for some reason Lee chose not to pursue the publication of the earlier manuscript.

Most of the people commenting on the issue today were not born when To Kill a Mockingbird was first published, in 1960. Thus, they do not know that the book’s success was a total surprise. Lippincott didn’t push it book; they didn’t quite understand what they had. It wasn’t until after it was reviewed to almost universal acclaim that its success began. Then, it became the only novel that was a major selection of the four most significant book clubs at the time, because none of them had taken an option on the book when they read the manuscript in galleys. Its success lead to a later choice by those four book clubs. If this fact tells us anything, it again reminds us that publishers rarely understand the significance (or lack thereof) of the books they publish.

Second, there was plenty of trade chatter when To Kill a Mockingbird was published speculating that Harper Lee did not write the novel. She was a close friend of Truman Capote (who was in a fallow period of his career), and there were speculations that Capote had actually written the novel—or, at the very least, had helped Lee with the book. The belief that Capote had written the book persisted for some time because there was no second novel. The author’s reclusive nature didn’t help, either, but it supports the fact that she had decided not to pursue the publication of her first novel. The royalties were ample—as they can be from a book that is required reading for students year after year—so that Lee could live a comfortable life. Nor did the highly successful 1962 movie version hurt the book’s success.

My speculation is that Go Set a Watchman will be a disappointment for Lee’s many fans, in spite of the fact that it will sell like crazy. Again, there is often no relationship between a book’s sales and its importance. There’s something simply too fishy about the manuscript’s sudden appearance—plus what is obvious: the fact that Lee chose not to publish the book years ago. Think about how often we’ve been disappointed by the posthumous publication of the novels of some of our country’s major novelists (Faulkner, Hemingway, Ellison). On the other hand, if Go Set a Watchman gets many people to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, that in itself is an accomplishment.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

November 15, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Ukania: the Land Where the Queen’s Son Has His Shoelaces Ironed by His Valet
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Spraying Poisons, Chasing Ghosts
Anthony DiMaggio
In the Wake of the Blue Wave: the Midterms, Recounts, and the Future of Progressive Politics
Christopher Ketcham
Build in a Fire Plain, Get What You Deserve
Meena Miriam Yust
Today It’s Treasure Island, Tomorrow Your Neighborhood Store: Could Local Currencies Help?
Karl Grossman
Climate of Rage
Walter Clemens
How Two Demagogues Inspired Their Followers
Brandon Lee
Radical Idealism: Jesus and the Radical Tradition
Kim C. Domenico
An Anarchist Uprising Against the Liberal Ego
Elliot Sperber
Pythagoras in Queens
November 14, 2018
Charles Pierson
Unstoppable: The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline and NAFTA
Sam Bahour
Israel’s Mockery of Security: 101 Actions Israel Could Take
Cesar Chelala
How a Bad Environment Impacts Children’s Health
George Ochenski
What Tester’s Win Means
Louisa Willcox
Saving Romania’s Brown Bears, Sharing Lessons About Coxistence, Conservation
George Wuerthner
Alternatives to Wilderness?
Robert Fisk
Izzeldin Abuelaish’s Three Daughters were Killed in Gaza, But He Still Clings to Hope for the Middle East
Dennis Morgan
For What?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Government is Our Teacher
Bill Martin
The Trump Experiment: Liberals and Leftists Unhinged and Around the Bend
Rivera Sun
After the Vote: An Essay of the Man from the North
Jamie McConnell
Allowing Asbestos to Continue Killing
Thomas Knapp
Talkin’ Jim Acosta Hard Pass Blues: Is White House Press Access a Constitutional Right?
Bill Glahn
Snow Day
November 13, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Midterm Results are Challenging Racism in America in Unexpected Ways
Victor Grossman
Germany on a Political Seesaw
Cillian Doyle
Fictitious Assets, Hidden Losses and the Collapse of MDM Bank
Lauren Smith
Amnesia and Impunity Reign: Wall Street Celebrates Halliburton’s 100th Anniversary
Joe Emersberger
Moreno’s Neoliberal Restoration Proceeds in Ecuador
Carol Dansereau
Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity
Dave Lindorff
Hey Right Wingers! Signatures Change over Time
Dan Corjescu
Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge
Patrick Bond
Mining Conflicts Multiply, as Critics of ‘Extractivism’ Gather in Johannesburg
Ed Meek
The Kavanaugh Hearings: Text and Subtext
Binoy Kampmark
Concepts of Nonsense: Australian Soft Power
November 12, 2018
Kerron Ó Luain
Poppy Fascism and the English Education System
Conn Hallinan
Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon
Robert Hunziker
Tropical Trump Declares War on Amazonia
John W. Whitehead
Badge of Shame: the Government’s War on Military Veterans
Will Griffin
Military “Service” Serves the Ruling Class
John Eskow
Harold Pinter’s America: Hard Truths and Easy Targets
Rob Okun
Activists Looking Beyond Midterm Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take
Dean Baker
Short-Term Health Insurance Plans Destroy Insurance Pools
George Wuerthner
Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail