first encountered Harper Lee’s "To Kill a
Mockingbird" in ninth grade. Like so many others, I
was struck not just by the book’s vivid narrative of
racial justice, but also by its nuance: the inner life
of its narrator and its deft portrayal of small-town
eccentricities, which its author would come to embody
herself, to some extent.
completing the novel — an international bestseller, it
won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction — Lee helped
her childhood friend Truman Capote (model for the
character of Dill) research his 1966 nonfiction book
"In Cold Blood." Then she pretty much
retreated from literary life.
as much as the power of her novel, has fueled an ongoing
hunger, a fascination with both the author and her
that regard, Lee is not unlike another reclusive author,
J.D. Salinger, who never published again after his last
novella, "Hapworth 16, 1924," appeared in the
New Yorker in 1965.
hard, then, to know what to make of the news that Lee
will publish a second novel in July. The new book,
"Go Set a Watchman," is said to have been
completed in the mid-1950s and features the character of
Scout, who narrates Lee’s landmark 1960 novel,
"To Kill a Mockingbird," as an adult who has
returned to her hometown of Maycomb, Ala., to visit her
this reason, "Go Set a Watchman" is being
billed as a sequel of sorts to "To Kill a
Mockingbird," although it was written first.
"My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to
Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel ...
from the point of view of the young Scout," Lee
explained in a statement issued Tuesday by her
publisher, Harper. "... I was a first-time writer,
so I did as I was told."
Kill a Mockingbird," of course, became a classic of
20th century American literature, widely read and widely
influential, a staple of high school reading lists.
me, the announcement of "Go Set a Watchman"
brings to mind a number of other lost (or found) books,
including David Foster Wallace’s "The Pale
King," which came out in 2011 and was a finalist
for the Pulitzer Prize. Left unfinished at the time of
his 2008 suicide, "The Pale King" is
novel-as-reclamation project, a pastiche of scenes
brought into coherent shape by the author’s longtime
editor, Michael Pietsch. I also think of John Kennedy
Toole’s "The Neon Bible," published in 1989,
nine years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A
Confederacy of Dunces." Like "Go Set a
Watchman," it is an early work, written when its
author was just 16.
there’s Ralph Ellison’s posthumous novel, "Juneteenth,"
on which he worked for more than 40 years after the
publication of "Invisible Man" in 1952. Like
Lee, Ellison was long regarded as a single-novel author,
unable to step out from under the shadow of his iconic
debut. But this comparison, too, is not fully accurate,
for "Juneteenth" was only published in
abbreviated form in 1999, five years after the author’s
death at 80; 11 years later, an expanded version of this
unfinished epic was released under the title "The
Days Before the Shooting."
lost novel remains most compelling, perhaps, for its
sense of possibility, what it suggests about the book it
might have become.
big part of the fascination with "Go Set a
Watchman" is not just a chance to hear from beloved
characters like Scout and Atticus again — it has to do
with what it might tell us about "To Kill A
Mockingbird," how one novel grew out of the other,
the process by which the classic work was made. That’s
compelling, certainly, although I’m not sure it is
enough of an impetus to read the upcoming novel on its
the same time, this is not about a novel on its terms,
but more an expression of what the culture wants or will
bear. We are interested in "Go Set a Watchman"
because of "To Kill a Mockingbird"; what was
deemed not ready for publication 60 years ago is now
anticipated because of who and what it represents.
seems particularly apropos in terms of Lee, whose first
novel is considered something of a national treasure, as
close as a book comes to being sacrosanct. What does it
do for her reputation as a writer if, as is likely the
case, "Go Set a Watchman" turns out to be a
is a novel, after all, that was rejected and then
ignored for 60 years. How then do we assess it, judge
it, read it, both as an aesthetic experience and in
terms of Lee’s career?
be lying if I said I weren’t curious, but I’d also
be lying if I didn’t admit that I met the news of its
publication with a little bit of regret.
Let’s just say that the release of any author’s
early work is, at best, a mixed blessing — even in the
best of circumstances. It can be revealing, yes, but it
is also almost always reductive: a reflection of our
desire to get closer more than any organic intention to
listen or to tell.