It’s a rare book that becomes a bestseller before it’s even published.
Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, won’t debut until July, and yet it’s already selling like hot cakes via pre-order on amazon.com and other book sites.
I’d stand in line for Lee’s book. Her only other novel was To Kill a Mockingbird, published to instant acclaim in 1960. Since then, that tireless book has never been out of print. It has sold at least 40 million copies worldwide in 40 languages and is still often read by high-school students in English classes. It’s a happy example of what can happen when literary quality meets popularity.
The manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, squirreled away for more than 60 years, was recently discovered by Lee’s attorney. Lee actually wrote the novel in the early-1950s before she wrote Mockingbird. She’d shown the Watchman manuscript to a publisher, who was so impressed by its occasional flash-back scenes, he urged Lee to re-write the novel, using the flash-back scenes as the setting of the book, with the little girl as narrator.
Watchman takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after the action in Mockingbird. In the “new” book, the little girl in Mockingbird, Scout, has become a young woman living and working in New York City who returns to her hometown of Maycomb, Ala. There, she interacts with many of the same characters in Mockingbird, grown older, of course. Other than that skeletal information, I don’t know anything else about the book, not even what it’s rather odd title signifies. But it doesn’t matter; I’m eager to read it no matter what.
I vividly remember the pleasures of Mockingbird when I first read a paperback copy of it in the summer of 1962. It was such a page-turner I sat for hours in the plush chair in the corner of my living room, completely enthralled by its vivid characters, by its narrative magic and its powerhouse themes of honor, integrity, courage, compassion and racial injustice.
As I sat there riveted by that book all day Saturday, my parents kept saying, “Get your nose out of that book and go outside and get some fresh air!”
I ignored them. Nothing could have torn me from that book.
That same year, I was just as riveted when I saw the movie version starring the great Gregory Peck as attorney Atticus Finch, and that astonishing performance by Mary Badham as 6-year-old Scout. To this day, I consider it the best book-into-movie adaptation of all time.
Mockingbird has popped up so many times throughout my life. In college, I would see students reading it. While traveling, now and again I would see people reading it at airports, train stations, bus depots; and in parks, public plazas and beaches. When I spot people reading quality literature, it always makes me happy.
I was pleased to see a first edition of Mockingbird among time-capsule objects in the Texas Book Depository in Dallas, a museum on the very floor of that building from which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John Kennedy in 1963. Mockingbird was in that museum as one of the cultural artifacts of the early 1960s, the Kennedy years.
Mockingbird appeared just on the eve of the great 1960s civil-rights struggles in the American South. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published a century earlier, Lee’s novel shined a light on racial injustices and opened many eyes to the cruelties and crimes perpetrated on a daily basis against Afro-Americans. Both of those authors, using their formidable story-telling skills, showed how such despicable behavior was viewed as business-as-usual by far too many white Americans, and not just Southern whites, either. Mockingbird was a harbinger of spring, of hope, a vision that maybe – just maybe – good people can bring about good changes if they act together courageously against injustice. In her book, Lee offered no solutions, but she vividly exposed the problems of systemic societal injustice.
One reason Mockingbird is so absorbing (sad, but at times comical) is that it’s narrated from the viewpoint of Scout, the little daughter of the attorney who represents a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Scout, a feisty tomboy, is trying to figure out the crazy, contradictory world of the adults around her, and she asks and ponders all the right questions, thereby unwittingly shining a light on the many wrongs in her dysfunctional sleepy Southern town. She is very much like that other immortal narrator, the shrewd-but-naïve river boy Huck Finn.
Lee, born and raised in Monroeville, Ala., is now 88, a resident of an assisted-living home in that city. For years, fans begged her to write another novel. She always answered them with variations of this: “I had to say what I had to say and I said it, and I’m not going to say it again.” Little did we know she had already written “another” novel, long before she wrote Mockingbird. What a treat that such a wonderful writer, so late in her life, is about to give us another great big gift.