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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.

 

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

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