It’s Christmas day and you open the largest gift, a package sent from your grandma who lives up north. You have been waiting for two weeks now to see what’s inside. When you open it you’re ecstatic. It’s the drone you saw online two months ago and you dreamed of one day owning! Never in million years did you expect to ever own one. It is way too expensive. Then it hits you. Grandma can’t afford this! She lives on social security. This drone cost over $2000! You heard your parents talking about her dementia getting worse. Now you feel sick. How can you enjoy your new gift when you don’t know if this is what your grandma intended to do?
That is how I kind of feel about the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman.
I love To Kill a Mockingbird. It is one of my favorite books and is my favorite book to teach. I have taught this book in middle school classrooms for eight years. I have had many engaging class discussions about the themes and messages taught in this book. I have had great times teaching this book. I have even held a first edition in my hand. One of my students brought in an old version of the book her grandma had. She thought I would like to see it. When I opened the cover, I saw the copyright was 1960. Um, that is the year it was published. I quickly researched it online and discovered it was indeed a first edition valued at over $12,000! I quickly took it to the office and had them put it in the vault and I called the parents to inform them about what they had in their possession. They were surprised and gracious for letting them know.
I was at first excited and stunned like everyone else to learn there was a sequel to Mockingbird. Ever year after reading it there was always the inevitable question from children raised in a Harry Potter-Hunger Games-Divergent world: When is the sequel coming out? The answer, of course was, “There isn’t one.” Their reaction often was confusion and horror at the idea that an author would write a book and just leave us hanging. I would always try and explain to them that there were books in the world that weren’t made into summer blockbusters with huge budgets and CGI. They of course would just look at me dumbfounded.
“Well that’s dumb, ” came their pat reply, standard for anything they didn’t agree with.
Many readers clamored for more after July 11, 1960, when To Kill A Mockingbird was published. The novel was made into a movie in 1962. The film won three Academy Awards including best actor for Gregory Peck. Fans still wanted more.
More never came.
Speculation began to stir that maybe Harper Lee didn’t actually write To Kill A Mockingbird. After all, how can someone write one Pulitzer prize winning book and never write another book? Some speculated that her good friend, Truman Capote, wrote it for her or helped her write it. She grew up with Capote and based one of the characters, Dill on Truman. This theory lingered for decades until it was finally laid to rest in 2005 when some of Truman Capote’s personal letters surfaced in which he referred to the book telling his sister that he had read Lee’s manuscript and it was quite good.
Years later it was reported that she indeed tried to write a second book. Smithsonian.com reports:
In the mid-1980s Lee began researching a nonfiction book about an Alabama preacher suspected of being a serial killer, tentatively titled The Reverend. But she abandoned it, too, perhaps feeling that just as she could not out-Lee Lee she could not out-Capote Capote.
It was speculated she had writer’s block or was frozen by the sheer terror of writing a book that measured up to the success of Mockingbird. Many were resigned to the fact that there never would be a sequel. Then on February 3, 2015 the announcement came that there was a sequel coming. I was so happy. After the elation of hearing of the sequel, came the questions. Then, the guilt.
Why after all these years was there a new book? Why now?
The answer to these questions come from Lee’s lawyer’s claim that this was the original manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird that Harper Lee turned into her publisher that contained much more about the characters including events after To Kill A Mockingbird. It was once thought lost but discovered recently among some of Lee’s personal papers. The original working title for To Kill A Mockingbird was Go Set a Watchman. Later, it was Atticus and finally To Kill A Mockingbird. It was reported that it was a huge manuscript.
Another question is what is the book really? It is being marketed as a sequel but some say it really is a prequel.
Then there is the issue of editing. As the Washington Post reports Tay Hohoff, an editor for the book’s publisher had a big hand in shaping To Kill A Mockingbird:
Tay Hohoff, was instrumental not only in getting the novel published but in shaping it into the book it is today. As Hohoff put it, “The editorial call to duty was plain.” Lee needed “professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure.”
Lee went on to revise the book three times.
So the original manuscript needed heavy editing and revision to become To Kill A Mockingbird.
Yet as the New York Times reports:
According to the publisher, the book will be released as she first wrote it, with no revisions.
This does not sound like Harper Lee to me. She now lives in an assisted living facility in Alabama.It has been reported by some that Harper Lee, now 89, is in poor health including dementia. Others say she is “sharp as a tack”. If she is so sharp then why no revisions. Are we to believe they just discovered this manuscript, dusted it off and are now just going to sell it as is. No revision or editing?
Is this really what Harper Lee wants?
Was she pressured into releasing this book? Who pressured her into releasing it? Her new lawyer who discovered the manuscript with her possessions? This new lawyer was retained after Harper’s sister Alice, Lee’s lawyer, died in November of last year at the age of 103. It was reported by telegraph.co.uk that this same lawyer sister said that
(Harper) can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.
So Alice, a fierce defender of Harper’s privacy, died in November and in February this manuscript was found by her new attorney, Tonja Brooks Carter. The terms of this new book deal have not been released but suffice it to say I would think Ms. Carter would do very well by this deal. Coupled with the fact that Harper doesn’t really have any confidants that could stand in the way, who’s to say she wasn’t coerced into this deal?
A doctor requested that the state of Alabama investigate whether or not Lee was “capable to have consented to the release of the work”, BBC.com reports.
The state concluded that she was not pressured into doing anything she didn’t want to do and was competent to make this decision.
“We closed the file. Let’s just say that she was able to answer questions we asked to our satisfaction from our point of view,” said Joseph Borg, Alabama Securities Commission director.
So in the end we don’t really know for sure if this is really what Harper Lee intended. We don’t know whether the book is really any good or is it an unfinished, unrefined book that will detract from the incredible original? One could also rationalize that it doesn’t hurt to just read it. There is plenty of garbage out there passing itself off as literature. Just how bad could it be. Mrs. Lee will get a lot of money in the deal so it is not like anyone stole it from her.
I just have this nagging feeling that somehow she has been taken. My experience with elderly people in assisted living facilities is that I am constantly fending off attempts by others to take advantage of them. They are like vultures. Is there anything that sounds more like vulture behavior than circling an aging author until everyone of her confidants dies off and then swoop in and convince her to sign a book deal on a half-baked sequel/prequel?
So in the end I have to ask myself, how can enjoy this novel if I am not sure if this is really what the author intended to do?
Photo “Nelle Harper Lee” by Unknown – ebay posting. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
AP, Second Harper Lee Novel to Be Published in July, nytimes.com
Editor ,Harper Lee ‘not pressured into releasing second novel’, bbc.com
Leehrsen, Charles, Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement, smithsonianmag.com
Wilson, Frances, Harper Lee: ‘she never wanted to publish another book’, telegraph.co.uk