‘I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’
Arguably, the above quote is one of the most famous in the literary canon: if you’ve ever read the book, I would happily wager that you could – most likely – recite Atticus’ words. Along with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is heralded as defining coming-of-age fiction which is poignantly concerned with race. One only has to search the internet to find a vast array of paeans to Lee’s work. Indeed, the sheer volume of people who can comment on this book in an epoch of digital enthusiasm indicated the humungous impact this novel has had on our culture.
As Lee herself remarked in 1964, she “never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird.” Lee said ‘I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.’
Certainly, numerous interviews recount Harper Lee stating that she would never write another novel. And now, fifty-five years after the publication of Nelle Harper Lee’s first book, the stoic and notoriously silent author has announced her intention for the release of a sequel entitled Go Set a Watchman. As the title suggests in its allusion to Isaiah 21:6, the new novel is reported to show Scout as an adult looking back on her father as the guardian of Maycomb as well as examining her own moral compass. Yet, there has been much speculation circling the reasons as to why Harper Lee has, ostensibly, so suddenly changed her mind: was she forced? Was this urge to write fomented by financial necessity? Having suffered a stroke in 2007, was she in a strong enough sense of mind for this distributing of new material? Harper Lee has defended herself against these pernicious allegations and her lawyer, Ms Carter, stated that ‘she is a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long-lost novel’ but instead ‘she is having to defend her own credibility and decision making.’
Personally, I fail to understand how the publication of such a book has come under criticism: yes, I understand the temptation to see To Kill a Mockingbird as a stand-alone classic, but it was initially intended as part of a trilogy. What is more, I find it hard to believe that a woman such as Harper Lee – who has determinedly resisted pressure to release another book for over fifty years – would unwilling consent to the publication of another book now. And, think about the potential impact of this book. Since To Kill a Mockingbird has been taken off the all school syllabuses in schools in England to fulfil the desire to ‘broaden’ the syllabus (thank you, Michael Gove), perhaps this new book will encourage the next generation to read more books like To Kill a Mockingbird; widen their perceptions of the outside world; and illustrate to them that issues such as racism did not die in the 1950s, but are an on-going struggle.
I’m sure, just like her previous fiction, Lee’s novel will encourage one to think and to demand more: of writers, of teachers, of ourselves. Harper Lee inspires because she forces us to demand that what one reads reflects the world around us rather than merely a mirror of the writer. Whilst To Kill a Mockingbird certainly achieved this, it did satiate this yearning fully: I feel that there is no book which, on its own, can do this. The publication of Go Set a Watchman suggests that Harper Lee concurs with this.
Go Set a Watchmen is set to be released on 14 July 2015. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy; I encourage you to do the same.