A literary bombshell was dropped yesterday. There will be a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird published this summer. I was so astounded and didn’t know how to properly process this information so I did what any good millennial does in such times: I Tweeted incoherent things on social media.
It feels like I should be jumping around for joy but I’m hesitating for a few reasons.
First, there are reports that Harper Lee is not well and therefore concerns that this book is being published without her consent. There are rumours that Lee, who is 88 years old and may be in poor health, has given power of attorney to a law firm that has proven to be fairly litigious with respect to her intellectual property and estate. As such, some are questioning the authenticity of the Lee’s enthusiastic statements regarding the publication of her sequel which were provided via her publisher.
The story of how the sequel was discovered is also quite astonishing which could be seen as either fishy or serendipitous. Apparently Lee began writing this book – which is called Go Set A Watchman and is set in the 1950’s- first but her editor persuaded her to write a story about the main character’s childhood instead. Thus the initial manuscript was set aside and To Kill A Mockingbird was written and published. Fast forward decades and the previously abandoned work has reappeared. Hmm… it seems a little suspicious to me but perhaps I am too cynical.
Controversy aside, there is another reason why I’m not sure I’ll rush to read Go Set A Watchman. I can’t help but wonder if To Kill A Mockingbird is better left standing alone.
As you can see from the above, I’m wrestling with this thought. There’s something about being a book purist that feels a bit too much like book snobbery for my liking. And yet, in my personal experience I haven’t found them to be synonymous. I’m a big fan of the idea that people should read whatever the heck they want. I read plenty of things that could be considered “high-brow” and “low-brow.” Yet, I have, for example, purposefully avoided reading any of the Gone With The Wind sequels or related novels (I’m considering making an exception for The Wind Done Gone but that’s a whole other blog post). I’ve avoided them for the obvious reason that they are not written by Margaret Mitchell but also because I think Gone With The Wind does not need any companionship. In my mind it has an absolutely perfect ending and is a complete story in and of itself.* The purist in me wants the same for To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s such a great novel that tells such an important story that I can’t help but feel it is more powerful without any additions.
* By complete I do not mean unproblematic. Again, I could (and probably will) write a more thoughtful blog post about how I feel about Gone With The Wind and its racial undertones. That is a discussion worthy of its own post.
There’s also the more practical matter of the fact that Lee’s editor initially persuaded her to abandon it. It seems plausible – dare I say likely? – that Go Set A Watchman was left on the cutting room floor (to mix media metaphors) because it wasn’t her best work. That’s not to diminish Lee’s talents. On the contrary, her initial attempt gave birth to one of the most beloved novels of contemporary literature. But maybe she had to work through some muck in order to produce To Kill A Mockingbird. Surely there are authors today who would be horrified by the thought of their first draft seeing the light of day, even if that first draft was an integral part of the development of creating a masterpiece. Isn’t that the point of first drafts? Maybe I’m overstating the nature of Lee’s manuscript but even if it’s a more fully realized story than “first draft” implies that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ripe for publication. So that’s where I feel for Harper Lee. She often stated in interviews that she felt no desire to write another novel and the fact that she never published this or any other manuscript suggests she really meant it. If she has genuinely changed her mind then great! But if not, it seems unfair to publish something in her name if that was never her intention.
Of course we can all rest assured that regardless To Kill A Mockingbird will not be ruined. Purist or not I don’t think that is what’s at stake here. That’s the great thing about literature and entertainment more generally, we can chose how we we consume and interpret it. I haven’t seen the 9th season of Scrubs for instance and am happy pretending the series ended with the excellent finale of season 8. So while for now I’m sticking with my purist inclinations, I reserve the right to change my mind either because I decided that my attitude is book snobbery or because my curiosity about what adult Scout Finch is like got the better of me.