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.

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador   Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail