Local readers 'excited' by Harper Lee news
Like many other literary lovers, Kate O'Neil, director of the Stockbridge Library, never thought she would see the day Harper Lee wrote another book.
But when she read the news on a shared Facebook post that "To Kill a Mockingbird" will not be Lee's only published book after all, O'Neil said she couldn't stop imagining what the next chapter in Scout's life would hold.
"I'm just really thrilled," she said. "'To Kill a Mockingbird,' was a favorite of mine since I read it in high school. The thought of another chapter in Scout's life that we get to learn about and enjoy is so exciting."
Publisher Harper announced last week that "Go Set a Watchman," a novel the Pulitzer Prize-winning author completed in the 1950s and put aside, will be released July 14. Rediscovered last fall, "Go Set a Watchman" is essentially a sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird," although it was finished earlier. The 304-page book will be Lee's second, and the first new work in more than 50 years.
The publisher plans a first printing of 2 million copies.
"In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called 'Go Set a Watchman,"' the 88-year-old Lee said in a statement issued by Harper. "It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel (what became 'To Kill a Mockingbird') from the point of view of the young Scout.
"I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn't realized it (the original book) had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."
According to publisher Harper, Carter came upon the manuscript at a "secure location, where it had been affixed to an original typescript of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'" The new book is set in Lee's famed Maycomb, Ala., during the mid-1950s, 20 years after "To Kill a Mockingbird" and roughly contemporaneous with the time that Lee was writing the story. The Civil Rights Movement was taking hold in her home state. The Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 led to the year-long Montgomery bus boycott.
"Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus," the publisher's announcement reads. "She is forced to grapple with issues, both personal and political, as she tries to understand her father's attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood."
Matthew Tannenbaum, owner of The Bookstore in Lenox, wondered aloud in conversation what this must be like for Lee, a writer who is notorious for staying out of the public eye ever since her first book became a literary hit.
"I wonder how that feels to be a writer like Harper Lee," he said. "When you're a writer, you can't help but write, but then this reaction of hers after her first book came out. She didn't think ['To Kill a Mockingbird'] would sell, she couldn't deal with the publicity once it did. A writer's job is not to publish or publicize, but to write. And she embodied that."
Lee is a Monroeville, Ala., native who lived in New York in the 1950s and returned to her hometown. Lee's publisher said the author is unlikely to do any publicity for the book. She has rarely spoken to the media since the 1960s, when she told one reporter that she wanted "to leave some record of small-town, middle-class Southern life." Until now, "To Kill a Mockingbird" had been the sole fulfillment of that goal.
According to the publisher, the book will be released as she first wrote it, with no revisions.
"She has a voice and that voice cuts through all sorts of things," Tannenbaum said of Lee. "I'm fascinated to know how Scout turns out."
Lee's voice, said O'Neil, and the many themes she tackles in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' are what makes the book a classic for generations after generations. Many themes, especially the book's main focus on race relations in the South, are still applicable to life today, according to O'Neil.
"I've been thinking about what it is about the book that resonates with people, generation after generation," she said. "It's her own story of growing up, her defining who's she's going to be and her remarkable father. Then, there's the theme of race relations — we've seen so much of that in the last year in our time and we're still dealing with a lot of things the book was dealing with at that time. It is timeless, really."
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is among the most beloved novels in history, with worldwide sales topping 40 million copies. It was released on July 11, 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a 1962 movie of the same name, starring Gregory Peck in an Oscar-winning performance as the courageous attorney Atticus Finch. Robert Duvall, who played the reclusive Boo Radley in the movie, issued a statement Tuesday saying the film was a "pivotal point" for him and he was "looking forward" to the new book.
Although occasionally banned over the years because of its language and racial themes, "Mockingbird" has become a standard for reading clubs and middle schools and high schools. The absence of a second book from Lee only seemed to enhance the appeal of "Mockingbird."
"This is a remarkable literary event," Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham said in a statement. "The existence of 'Go Set a Watchman' was unknown until recently, and its discovery is an extraordinary gift to the many readers and fans of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee's classic novel, it is a compelling, and ultimately moving, narrative about a father and a daughter's relationship, and the life of a small Alabama town living through the racial tensions of the 1950s."
O'Neill said she hopes all of the excitement surrounding the new book will introduce Lee — and the strong female character Scout — to a new readership to be appreciated all over again.
"Hopefully, this also will bring new readers back to first book," she said.
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