Listen to the Mockingbird

TKAMI’d just re-read To Kill a Mockingbird for a January 2015 book discussion when the news broke, two weeks later, that Harper Lee would publish a long-awaited second novel.

An astonishing development and the timing was a true coincidence, for To Kill a Mockingbird and the group’s animated discussion of it were still fresh in my mind.

After delving into Lee’s narrative of Depression-era, small town Maycomb, Alabama from the point-of-view of young Scout Finch, the nine of us around the long wooden table in the boardroom where the book group meets inevitably got around to discussing Harper Lee. Or to be more precise, we discussed the Harper Lee mystique. Essentially, we pondered why Lee never wrote another book. She’d achieved the greatest heights of literary accomplishment with her debut novel, and any new work would be measured against it. It must have seemed a formidable task.

Or perhaps she didn’t have anything else to say.

Everyone who has read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird has looked up from it in dazed admiration and asked, “This is a first novel? This is an only novel?”

Now, 55 years since Lee published her masterpiece which won the Pulitzer Prize and the hearts of millions of readers, it turns out that a first draft had survived in a safe place near Lee’s home. Assumed irretrievably lost, it was found in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman will be published in July as a sequel, though it was completed a few years ahead of Mockingbird. Apparently, the story is distinct enough from Mockingbird that it stands alone as a separate account. How it will stack up against Mockingbird in terms of the author’s writing prowess is anybody’s guess. Lee rewrote her first draft at the request of an editor who liked the childhood flashbacks of an adult Scout returning to her hometown 20 years after the trial of Tom Robinson, and asked the first-time novelist to present the story in the point-of-view of the child Scout.

There might have been additional reasons the editor asked the aspiring author to rewrite the manuscript. Reportedly patchy and awkwardly structured, the process of revising it eventually took three drafts and two and a half years.

The true value of Go Set a Watchman might ultimately be to writers and editors who read it together with Mockingbird as a study in revision. It’s with that expectation that I will read Go Set a Watchman.

If it should turn out to be a treasured book in its own right, a long-awaited second novel worthy of its author’s duly lauded debut, then that will just be gravy.

“From now on it’ll be everybody less one–” Atticus teaches his young daughter Scout to do what’s right even if it means not following the crowd.

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