This is the week that changes literary history — the week when the extremely private writer Harper Lee goes from being a one-hit wonder to being the author of a series. (Series of two, anyway.) “Go Set a Watchman,” her long-lost first novel (which takes place after “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but which was written before it), will be in bookstores Tuesday.
Advance copies were made available only to select news outlets, and the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian of London published the first chapter on their websites on Friday. The most shocking revelation that emerged from early reviews was that beloved character Atticus Finch is portrayed in this book as a bigot.
As with so much about Lee, who has not talked to the press since 1964, many of the details surrounding the discovery of the manuscript and its publication are shrouded in mystery. But here is what you need to know about the author, the new book and the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning companion book.
Why is this such a big deal?
“Because no one ever thought it would happen,” said Amy Watkin, associate professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and author of a book about Harper Lee’s work.
Lee published “To Kill a Mockingbird” on July 11, 1960, and that was it. By 1965, she was done talking to the press, and she never published another book.
Since she won’t talk to reporters, all we have is hearsay and speculation. Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills addressed the question in her 2014 memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door.” She wrote, “Alice [Lee, Harper’s sister] leaned forward in her office chair. ‘I’ll put it this way. … When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more? Would you feel like you’re competing with yourself?’ ”
Later in the book, Mills (who lived next door to the Lee sisters for a year) quotes a Lee family friend who remembers Harper Lee saying, “Two reasons. First, I wouldn’t go through all the pressure and publicity I went through with ‘Mockingbird’ for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”
But did she continue to write?
For many years, there was talk of a second novel, and, later, Lee began work on a true-crime narrative similar to “In Cold Blood” (which she had worked on with Truman Capote), but neither book ever materialized.
In a 1974 interview with the BBC, Alice Lee said that the manuscript of Harper Lee’s second novel had been stolen in a burglary. (A mystery!) “Apparently she didn’t have the heart to start over,” noted Charles J. Shields in “Mockingbird,” his 2006 biography of Harper Lee.
Where does “Watchman” fit into all of this?
“Go Set a Watchman” is actually Lee’s first novel. Its protagonist is the character of Scout as a grown woman who comes back to Alabama from New York City in the 1950s to visit her father, Atticus Finch. It was not published, but her editor at Lippincott suggested a book that focused on Scout as a child. That became “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee said in a statement this year that she thought the “Watchman” manuscript had been lost and she was surprised when her attorney discovered it last fall.
Where did the attorney find it?
Well, somebody knows. But stories conflict. The attorney, Tonja Carter, says she happened upon the manuscript last August while looking through Lee’s private papers. She said it was attached to an original typescript of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But the New York Times recently reported that the existence of the manuscript apparently had been known for several years. The Times reported that in 2011 a rare-book expert from Sotheby’s went to Arkansas to appraise some of Lee’s papers and that the manuscript of “Watchman” was among them. Carter says she wasn’t in the room when it was discovered, and she wasn’t told. Others who were there say that she was present.
Might someone find a treasure trove of unpublished Lee manuscripts after her death?
Shields notes in his book that Lee once said she hoped to write a series of novels chronicling small-town middle-class Southern life — a way of life she saw as rapidly disappearing.
“I hope to goodness every novel I do gets better and better, not worse and worse,” Lee said in one of her last interviews in 1964. “All I want is to be the Jane Austen of south Alabama.”
But did she write those novels, and not publish them? It’s anybody’s guess.
Why is “Mockingbird” considered a classic?
The book won a Pulitzer Prize, has been translated into more than 40 languages, is taught in classrooms all over the country and has sold more than 40 million copies. In 55 years, it has never been out of print.
“Some writers are able to convey something about the human condition in a way that continues to resonate through decades, and sometimes centuries,” Watkin said. “There’s something about the way Harper Lee writes, and what she writes about, that is so human and universal it just grabs people.”
Are the characters in “Mockingbird” based on real people?
The character of Dill is based on Lee’s childhood friend and neighbor, writer Truman Capote. Atticus Finch is based on Lee’s father, who was also an attorney. And Scout? While most people assume that Scout is based on Lee herself, Lee told writer Mills, “You know Boo Radley? Well, that’s me.”
What is “Watchman” about?
The HarperCollins press release says: “This takes place during the mid-1950s during a turbulent time in American racial politics. There was civil unrest, which particularly affected the South and Alabama, and that’s part of the background for this novel.
“Scout, who’s now a grown-up woman living and working in New York City, goes back to the town where she was born and revisits old friends and family and sort of encounters old ghosts and comes up against new ideas and opinions. It’s a complicated, very adult novel that sweeps in family, politics, love, the South.”
Why has there been so much controversy about its publication?
Because Harper Lee was adamant for so many years that she would not publish another book in her lifetime. Many people have speculated that she was manipulated by her attorney into publishing this manuscript or, worse, is so frail that she doesn’t understand that it is being published.
How is her health?
Lee is 89 and suffered a stroke in 2007. She uses a wheelchair. She has been described as “frail” and “nearly blind.” She suffers from macular degeneration and is hard of hearing, if not entirely deaf. Some friends say she is lucid and sharp, while other friends say she is forgetful and sometimes confused.
Her agent, Andrew Nurnberg, issued a statement in March saying that Lee was “in full possession of her mental faculties” and was delighted that her book was going to be published.
HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham told the Atlantic in March that Lee was “very much engaged in the process,” adding that Nurnberg told him that Lee was “feisty,” “full of good spirits” and reading voraciously (which might be hard to do, if you have macular degeneration, but not impossible).
So was Harper Lee the victim of elder abuse?
Alabama’s Department of Human Resources investigated, and determined that there was no evidence of abuse or neglect.
Harper Lee worked for several years with her editors before publishing “Mockingbird.” Was “Watchman” edited?
No, said HarperCollins publicist Tina Andreadis. “Aside from some light copy editing, it will remain as written.”
Have movie rights been sold?
No. Harper Lee’s agent holds the film rights.
What is the print run?
Two million copies. Plenty for everyone.
There was talk in February that Lee might write an introduction to the new book. Did this happen?
No. Lee has famously said that she loathes introductions — as a matter of fact, she said so in a letter to HarperCollins when they asked her to write an introduction to the 35th anniversary edition of “Mockingbird.” The publisher then used that letter as the book’s introduction. It says:
“Please spare Mockingbird an Introduction. As a reader I loathe Introductions. To novels, I associate Introductions with long-gone authors and works that are being brought back into print after decades of internment. Although Mockingbird will be 33 this year, it has never been out of print and I am still alive, although very quiet. Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity. The only good thing about Introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose to come. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive without preamble.”
What does the title, “Go Set a Watchman,” mean?
Kidding! It comes from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, in the King James Bible: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth” (Isaiah 21:6).
Lee’s longtime friend Wayne Flynt, a retired Auburn University history professor and Baptist minister, said in an interview with AL.com that Lee “probably likened Monroeville to Babylon. The Babylon of immoral voices, the hypocrisy. Somebody needs to be set as the watchman to identify what we need to do to get out of the mess.”
“Watchman” was rejected by the publisher the first time around. Should we lower our expectations?
“I don’t know that I would say lower your expectations, but maybe change your expectations,” said Watkin. “If this book is Scout as an adult, it will not have that voice from the first book — and that is so much what people love about it: that voice. You’re not going to find it here. I feel like people are setting themselves up for disappointment. And it’s so hard to imagine how anyone, including Harper Lee, could write something better than ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”
Will “Watchman” be a bestseller?
It already is. Said Andreadis, “It is the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins’ history.” It has been No. 1 on Amazon’s list for some time, although it was briefly bumped by E.L. James’ “Grey,” the latest in a string of “Fifty Shades of Grey” novels.
But what if it’s lousy? Will that tarnish “Mockingbird”?
“I hope not,” Watkin said. “And that’s been my biggest concern. I suppose it could work the other way around — I guess we’ll know how good her first book really was.”
OK, how do I get a copy?
Many bookstores have taken advance orders, but there should still be plenty in stock, beginning Tuesday.