Harping On: The Mockingbird Sings Again

on Wednesday, February 4, 2015
How many authors can boast a perfect publishing record? I've spent the morning running through my list of favourites and, try as I might to name one who hasn't sullied their good name with a stinker, I'm coming up pretty empty. Indeed, the only person who hasn't royal screwed up is Harper Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird is a bona fide classic, one of the great American novels. Add to that "Harper Lee the woman" and you have a dead set literary legend. I've long admired her reclusive ways, her stubborn refusal to be drawn into the literary world and, most of all, her hilariously understated oneup(wo)manship of Truman Capote.

For the better part of fifty years Lee has remained an enigma. She hit the news a couple of years back over a nasty legal spat with her former agent who, it seems, pretty much stole the rights and royalties to Mockingbird. But other than that she might as well have been dead. Now she's hit the headlines again. Actually, that would be an understatement. The entire internet has gone into meltdown. Harper Lee is publishing a second novel this year, a sequel (of sorts) to Mockingbird called Go Set A Watchman.

According to pretty much every news source under the sun, Watchman was written before Mockingbird. It is the book Lee presented to her editor as a young, hopeful writer desperate to break into the publishing world. The editor liked it but was particularly enamoured of the flashback scenes - those that dealt with Scout as a child. Lee was told to go back and explore that aspect in greater detail. She came back with the novel we all know and love, nay revere.

So why risk the perfect record? Why now? I have always been in two minds about a 'second' Harper Lee novel. Like any debut of such incredible brilliance, I've yearned to read more. But then, what if it is rubbish? What if she only had one great book in her? I can think of countless great debuts that were followed up by boring, clumsy or just plain bad books.

The press would have us believe that the book is being published because it was only recently rediscovered. Apparently it was attached to an old typescript of Mockingbird. Yet it seems to coincide with a couple of troubling developments in Lee's life. Firstly, there was the legal spat. She ultimately won - the case settled out of court - but it is entirely possible that she is still on struggle street. Secondly, there is some talk that Lee has been steadily slipping towards senility. She is pushing 90 and, given her general shyness, it is hard to gauge the state of her faculties. And then, perhaps most troubling, is the fact that the announcement of this new book comes in the wake of a personal tragedy that has a decidedly professional bearing. As Jezebel reports:

Sadly, this news is not without controversy or complications. Harper Lee's sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee's estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

That said, I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm sure there is a reason Lee's editor rejected it in the first place. It may, at best, be Lee's apprentice novel - the one she wrote while learning to write. Whatever the case, I'll be reading it. I fell in love with the Finches and the townspeople of Maycomb and want to know what became of them. Sure, it may be a crushing disappointment. But then she'll just join my other heroes - Kafka, Steinbeck, Capek, Coetzee - in the halls of fallibility.


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