You’ve probably heard it by now: 55 years after Harper Lee published her first, and until now, only novel, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird is on its way.
The news surprised just about everybody, even to those who know Lee. “It seemed like something that was going to stand alone in history,” said Weinberg sophomore Alex Daly. As Mockingbird is his mother’s favorite book, he grew up with it and now, as a private tutor, teaches it as well.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as the arrival of a follow-up to a high-school-classroom staple. The announcement of the sequel, titled Go Set a Watchman, was soon followed by speculation about Lee's agency in the decision. It will be published in July.
Lee, now 88, actually wrote Go Set a Watchman first, but set it aside when her editor suggested that it wasn’t from the right perspective. Watchman features Scout as an adult returning to her Alabama hometown during the civil rights movement, twenty years after the events of Mockingbird.
Lee’s lawyer found the manuscript last fall, attached to the original copy of Mockingbird, fifty years after Lee thought she lost it. Her publisher has said there is no overlap between the novels, although Watchman does have a few references to the events of Mockingbird.
But there is worry that publishing the novel might not have been Lee’s wish. Despite the continued popularity of Mockingbird – it’s stayed in print since its original publication in 1960 – she’s remained remarkably private. Many acquaintances did not even know the Watchman manuscript existed. After suffering a stroke eight years ago, she’s now living a nursing home, and is growing deaf and blind. Her previous lawyer, her sister, died just last year.
Setting aside those ethical questions, it’s exciting news. Preorders for Watchmanquickly took the top spot on Amazon's bestseller list, with Mockingbird in second. Although it's since fallen from that spot, it remains close. That, however, raises another worry: can Watchman live up to Mockingbird?
“Considering that her editors made her put it away and suggested that she write To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe it won’t be as good,” said Colleen Schneider Cameron, who taught English at Crystal Lake South High School in Crystal Lake, IL, before resigning last year to start a family. She wonders how Lee grew as a writer between the novels, and if the perspective of a child contributed to the power of Mockingbird. From the perspective of a teacher, comparing the two works holds the potential for many lesson plans.
She’s optimistic about its potential, if only to revive interest in Mockingbird. “I think it could only have a positive impact on To Kill a Mockingbird,” she said.
Medill freshman Mariana Alfaro, who considers Mockingbird her favorite book she was assigned in high school, agreed. “She’s already earned all the respect she could possibly gain,” she said. “She can’t get hate.”
The sequel is not just a teaching opportunity for high school students. “Back when I taught it just a couple years ago, the kids would say ‘well, there isn’t racism anymore, so why does this matter?’” Cameron said. “Well, you can’t really say that anymore.”
Since Lee wrote Watchman in the ‘50s, it will have all the authenticity of the time while also being new. “It’s like a time capsule,” Alfaro said.
I remember reading Mockingbird for the first time; when the jury announced its verdict, I was certain I’d misunderstood something. It was a blunt lesson in the reality of life then, just as recent events are a reminder that the reality looks different now, but isn't gone. Watchman can join those conversations.
“I think that it’s probably still historically very significant and she still has a lot of say about race relations,” Daly said, but added, “I just hope that people don’t expect it to be up at the same level as To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Watchman is a good reminder of what has changed – such as the publication announcement circulating via social media – and what hasn’t – the issue of race. “It has the potential to solidify To Kill a Mockingbird even more than it already is as an important story, as something that does relate to our country at all times and needs to be looked at again and again,” Cameron said.