The 14 stages of responding to the To Kill a Mockingbird sequel
From shock to awe
1. Wait. Harper Lee wrote another novel? This isn't a joke? Some kind of April Fools' prank that was played two months early?
2. And it's called Go Set a Watchman? Interesting title. I wonder what it's about.
3. Hold on. Seriously? Go Set a Watchman is "essentially a sequel" to To Kill a Mockingbird? And it's not one of those annoying "license the story out to some other writer" things? Harper Lee actually wrote it?
4. And she wrote it before To Kill a Mockingbird? For 55 years, a manuscript about an adult Scout returning to Maycomb, Alabama, and reuniting with an elderly Atticus Finch has been lying around somewhere — and nobody knew about it until now? And the manuscript was discovered in an unspecified "secure location"? This is basically the plot of a National Treasure movie.
5. This has to be the highest-stakes literary sequel in American history, right? Imagine if someone had unearthed a previously unpublished sequel to The Great Gatsby in 1980. Imagine if J.D. Salinger had suddenly published a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye in 2006. Imagine if a long-lost sequel to Infinite Jest is discovered and published in 2051. The mind boggles.
6. The closest analogue we have for Go Set a Watchman is Scarlett, the much-reviled 1991 sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Like Harper Lee — until now, of course — Mitchell published just a single novel in her lifetime. And like Go Set a Watchman, Scarlett was published 55 years after Gone with the Wind exploded onto the literary scene. The key difference is that Scarlett wasn't written by Mitchell; it was written by Alexandra Ripley, a writer hand-selected by the Mitchell estate to continue the story. Mitchell was very, very frank about her feeling that Gone with the Wind shouldn't be continued. Here, we have a sequel written by the original author, and publisher Harper assures us Lee actually wants it published.
7. Of course, there's no guarantee that Harper Lee, who has always shied away from the spotlight, really wants this manuscript to see the light of day. As Jezebel notes, Alice Lee — Harper Lee's sister, lawyer, and lifelong advocate and protector — passed away last year. Lee's current attorney, Tonja Carter, has acknowledged that the "forgetful and nearly blind and deaf" Lee doesn't always understand the contracts she signs. Lee will not do publicity for Go Set a Watchman. All we have in confirmation is a statement, filtered through a publicity department, that claims Lee is "humbled and amazed" the book will be published.
8. Maybe the closest analogue isn't Scarlett, but Vladamir Nabokov's The Original of Laura, which was published by his son, against his express wishes, more than 30 years after his death, and roundly hailed as a disappointment. "English professors may assign The Original of Laura to their students someday, but it is really better suited to a college ethics class," wrote Alexander Theroux in The Wall Street Journal. If this announcement is Lee's last public statement on the subject, there's a very real chance Go Set a Watchman will be greeted with a similar response when it arrives in July.
9. Then again, Franz Kafka wanted all of his writings burned after his death. If Max Brod had complied with his wishes, readers would have been denied an incalculably valuable body of literature. No one gives Max Brod a hard time about violating Kafka's wishes now. And this time, the situation is different; we have a statement, credited to Harper Lee, saying she's happy about it. Isn't that enough to squash all the prickly concerns about authorial intent?
10. And even if Lee didn't want it published, does the literary value of a book like Go Set a Watchman trump these kinds of ethical concerns? Is the quality or historical value of a book more meaningful than the wishes of its author? Whatever your answer, the publication of Go Set a Watchman is more than just the book itself, or even the publicity circus that will inevitably follow; it's a series of questions about literature and authorship that we'll all be debating both before and after the book's release.
11. I guarantee some Hollywood studio is already taking tentative steps toward making this into a movie. God, if only Gregory Peck were still alive. It's hard to imagine any actor who could step into his shoes as an older Atticus Finch. Who could play the adult Scout? Jessica Chastain? Rachel McAdams? Elisabeth Moss?
12. It's kind of gross that I'm already casting the movie, isn't it? This all seems likely to reignite what Vulture once called the To Kill a Mockingbird industrial-complex, which has cheerfully monetized Lee's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by slapping its cover onto T-shirts and book bags. Lee's reclusiveness is due, in no small part, to the aggressive media blitz that greeted the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. We may be at the beginning of the same kind of cycle, where questions of literature are drowned out by questions of hype.
13. One misguided question that will undoubtedly be asked: how will Go Set a Watchman affect the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird? That question already has an answer: whatever the literary merits of Go Set a Watchman turn out to be, To Kill a Mockingbird's legacy is as fixed and unshakeable as any book in American history. You can make plenty of cases for the Great American Novel, but to me, To Kill a Mockingbird will always be the most personal. In early middle school, I was introduced to To Kill a Mockingbird by my father, who has always been Atticus Finch in my eyes. I'm not alone; countless readers have forged similar memories, to the tune of 40 million copies and counting, and the book attracts thousands of new fans every year. There are great books, and meaningful books, but rarely has a great book been so meaningful to so many people.
14. With so many questions, maybe the best response of all is to go back to Lee's own immutable words, which still ring with as much power and truth as they did on the day To Kill a Mockingbird was published: "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." As someone who loves reading so much that I don't think about loving reading — and loves To Kill a Mockingbird so much that I've spent years taking it for granted — there's no way I can approach Go Set a Watchman with anything but gratitude.