Since its publication in 1960, Harper Lee’s best-selling To Kill a Mockingbird has been described as America’s favorite book. It is required reading in many high schools and junior high schools and in schools in some foreign countries, and continues to sell more than a million copies a year. In it, a charming, combative child, Scout Finch, growing up safe and unconstrained in the small, old-fashioned, southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, glimpses some ugly realities of black–white relations and worships the exemplary behavior of her father, Atticus Finch, as he defends a black man falsely accused of rape and eloquently articulates many of our highest principles. For American readers, Atticus Finch has become an icon of lawyerly integrity, and the book itself an eloquent plea for racial harmony and civil rights.
After the huge success of To Kill a Mockingbird, the author withdrew to spend more and more time in her real-life small southern town of Monroeville, Alabama, and to general dismay, announced that she had “said what I wanted to say and will never say it again.” She published nothing further, so when after more than fifty years a new novel was announced, the joy, excitement, and calculation may be imagined; it was as if someone had found a sequel to Gone With the Wind. Pre-publication of the great discovery was surrounded by hush-hush embargoes and restrictions, and suspense mounted about what new literary pleasures and surprises this very much desired sequel would bring. Go Set a Watchman was a huge best seller even before its release.
The first reactions were of wary disappointment, charitable attempts to praise the many good qualities of the new novel, and, almost immediately, close rereadings of To Kill a Mockingbird, to see how the two works fit together. Above all, people wondered why Watchman was so much less accomplished than Mockingbird. A host of extraliterary issues immediately began to shadow its reception: first, the circumstances of its discovery, which raise questions of provenance and ownership; second, the work of its editors, both here and in the case of Lee’s earlier novel, the now classic Mockingbird; third, the implications of Lee’s possible mental and physical impairments for any critical approach to the work (are late de Koonings worth as much as those done before his Alzheimer’s?); fourth, the actual quality of the work itself; and finally, what was going to happen to the vast sums of money already mounting up?
Since suffering a stroke in 2007, the reclusive Harper Lee has been in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, watched over by her lawyer sister “Miss Alice” Lee until Alice’s death (aged 103) in 2014. A few days after Miss Alice died, the manuscript was “found” in “a secure location” by her present…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.