Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Looking for the Watchman, the Book Event of the Year

Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee

Isaiah 21:6
For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, Set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926 in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama. She was reared by her attorney father who also published the local newspaper. From an early age she developed an appreciation for the written word and also became an astute observer of the good, the bad, and the ugly found in the small southern town of her era.

Thirty-four years later (1960), when her now famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird was first published, her editor warned her not to be disappointed if it only sold a modest amount. The print-run was only two thousand. It became an instant bestseller, and since its print debut, it has never run out of print with recent tallies showing more than 40 million copies sold in more than 40 languages. It regularly appears on many high school reading lists, yet oddly has been frequently challenged by many would-be censors. Perhaps the most prestigious award was the Pulitzer Prize which it garnered less than a year after its initial publication.

This southern gothic, coming-of-age story is so well known to most readers that a recanting of the plot and narrative would seem to be redundant. What is worth mentioning are the vast number of themes and topics woven together throughout the novel. These include, but are not limited to, racial inequality, racism, classism, sexism, local traditions, taboos, mental illness, alcoholism, gender, loss of innocence, justice, and the lack thereof, and courage.

Atticus (Gregory Peck) and Scout (Mary
Badham) on the front porch swing, where
Scout shared the events of her day and
Atticus answered her many questions.
In 1962, a film of the same title was released starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Phillip Alford. The film received eight Academy Award nominations and brought home three Oscar wins. A play was also spun from the novel and is performed annually in Monroeville.

After several years of enjoying, or at least tolerating, her new-found fame, Lee turned her back on it altogether, refusing interviews, audiences with fans, and suggestions that she should produce another novel. She also suffered the insults of those who publicly opined that she was not the author of Mockingbird. Many of these detractors suggested that her close friend Truman Capote wrote it entirely or that he edited it heavily. (Capote did write on the dust jacket for the first edition.) Some question, that if she were the true author of this bestselling, popular, modern masterpiece, why did she not publish another novel as so many years rolled by.

WHOA! . . . not so fast.

Today, July 14, 2015, a second novel by Harper Lee titled Go Set a Watchman is being published. This, simply put, serves as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird since it includes some characters from the 1960 novel and is set twenty years later in time. The truth is that Watchman was written in the 1950s, several years before Mockingbird was written. Lee originally submitted Watchman to her publisher and it was rejected. She was given the advice to write another novel by expanding on flashbacks found in Watchman to feature a much younger Scout as the narrator depicting life and episodes from a small southern town. While Mockingbird is fiction, it is plausible to think of the novel’s Maycomb as a fictional Monroeville. Other autobiographical influences seem evident as well, as Lee, like many novelists, was writing on that which she found personally familiar.

First edition, UK
Given what is now known about the development and time frame of Watchman, one cannot help but wonder what to expect from the sequel. Surely the characters and social mores will have necessarily changed over time. How will Watchman resonate with long-time fans of Mockingbird? Will major Mockingbird fans accept or reject Watchman? After reading Watchman, will some Mockingbird fans change how they think of and feel about Mockingbird? Will this publication, after more than 50 years of silence, make a significant change to Harper Lee’s legacy?

Anticipation is running high and pre-orders are shattering previous records. Don’t miss the book event of the year. Reserve your copy today online, or contact your favorite BPL location in person or by telephone to secure your place in line.

While you are waiting, you can get a sneak peek here. Or a sneak listen (with Reese Witherspoon) here.

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

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