I don’t remember how old I was when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. No more than a boy, most likely. I do remember how I felt when I reached the last page — that odd sense of relief that the story is done mixed with the desire that it would keep going forever, as though I was at once both full and hungry. I still have that old copy. It’s beaten and dog-eared and underlined so much that entire passages are nearly illegible. It remains one of the very few novels I re-read every year.
Part of the book’s allure goes far beyond the story of Scout and Atticus and Boo Radley to the author herself. To Kill a Mockingbird is the only novel Harper Lee ever published, choosing instead to spend that last fifty years or so away from the public eye. Until last week anyway, when news broke that Lee will be publishing a second novel, Go Set a Watchman. Written before To Kill a Mockingbird, the book will feature many of the characters I first fell in love with years ago, centering around an adult Scout returning to her small Alabama town from New York to visit Atticus, her father.
I first heard the news on Facebook of all places, where I wrote it off as wishful rumor. Harper Lee has long been adamant that she would allow no more of her writing to be published. “I have said what I wanted to say,” she told a friend in an interview four years ago, “and I will not say it again.” But then I saw more posts and then more, and then it hit the major news networks and the publishing blogs and a flood of writer friends proclaimed this a high point in literary history and yes, I felt the same. I really did. Because this is Harper Lee, and she is in no small way one of the reasons I call myself a Southern writer.
I was thrilled. But only for a while.
Others voiced their skepticism. Go Set a Watchman was believed lost until recently, when Lee’s lawyer discovered it. And the timing of the announcement itself comes only months after the death of Lee’s sister Alice, who also served as Lee’s former lawyer and had long kept the outside world at bay. A subsequent interview with Lee’s editor only made things seem more suspicious: “…she’s very deaf and going blind. So it’s difficult to give her a call, you know? I think we all do our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say HarperCollins would like to do this and do that and get her permission. That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.”
Which, okay. But then Lee’s sister Alice said this, just before her death: “Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”
So what does this mean? Is releasing this novel Harper Lee’s wish, or is this a case of a publisher taking advantage of a senile old woman for the sake of what promises to be a buttload of money? And here’s another question, one posed by an article I read: If it’s a good book, does it even matter?
The Harper Lee fan in me almost answers no to that question. But the writer in me says yes, it matters more than anything.
I’m sure millions will line up for their copy of Go Set a Watchman, but I won’t be one of them. It pains me to say that, but I have to stand by it. It is an exercise in terror to pick up a pen and make it the instrument through which you spill those things buried deep inside, precious and frightening things that no right-minded person would dare confront. And it is often an exercise in lunacy to then seek to share those things with a world that will at best ignore them and at worse pronounce them lacking. Writing requires talent and discipline and unyielding relentlessness, but it requires courage most of all. And much of that courage hinges upon the one great freedom every writer holds dear—to choose when and where and especially if those words will ever be seen at all.