Thoughts on Harper Lee’s “new” book

Mockingbird bookYou’ve probably heard the news:  Harper Lee is finally publishing a “long-lost sequel” to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Some consider Mockingbird one of the best young adult novels of all time—even though it was published before that genre was recognized—others argue it is not a YA work at all, and many think it doesn’t matter. But few would hesitate to classify it as one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, and, as I have argued before the movie probably came the closest as anything in recent times to an authentic capture of the book’s magic. The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch its top movie hero of the last 100 years and even the current Superman says it’s his favorite.
Mockingbird boxOf course, once you read beyond the headlines, it becomes clear that the word “sequel” is a bit inaccurate. Apparently, this book was Ms. Lee’s original novel, depicting the adult Scout returning to Maycomb to visit her father, and looking back at the events of that summer with twenty years’ hindsight. She was advised to re-write the story from the child Scout’s point of view, though true book and movie fans will remember that the original book and movie still opened and closed with narration by clearly a grown-up Jean Louise Finch.

No doubt many are delighted to hear this news, but, in today’s world of Big Business Young Adult fiction, what will readers, old and (hopefully) young think of the different point of view? My two favorite Tweets on the matter:

Kaylee Webster: Is there going to be a midnight releasing? If so, I’m totally wearing a ham costume.
Kelly Lawler: If they make a movie out of this Mockingbird sequel, it’s totally going to be split into 2 parts.

atticusPersonally, I can’t help but hope that the book proves un-marketable to Hollywood, just because I can’t see anyone but Gregory Peck doing justice to Atticus.
The news of the release is also marred by suspicions about the text, and how it just happened to be “rediscovered” three short months after the death of Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s older sister and lawyer who staunchly protected her sister’s interests and privacy for decades, until she retired from her law practice at the tender age of 100. News stories about how Lee may have been cheated out of her Mockingbird copyright and about a recent maybe-authorized-maybe-not biography harper leehave re-surfaced and have raised questions over whether the 88-year-old author is in any shape to give informed consent to the publication of this material. Certainly she has a long-standing pattern of avoiding publicity and it seems odd for her to change her mind at her age. I sincerely hope there is a way of having someone with no financial stake in the matter look into the arrangement and confirm that everything is happening with kill a mockingbirdMs. Lee’s full understanding and in accordance with her wishes. As much as I’d like to revisit Maycomb, I would never want anyone to take Miss Maudie’s snow without her permission, even to build a rare and wonderful snowman for the neighborhood’s enjoyment.

If this story teaches us anything, it is that we need more Atticuses (or is that Attici?) to shield the Boo Radleys who prefer to stay indoors, advocate for the voiceless Tom Robinsons, and recognize the dignity of those as old and frail as the Mrs. Duboses. But then, we learned that back in 1960, didn’t we?


  1. Mrs. Freeman,

    I’ll admit to a lot of skepticism about this publishing move.

    My basic thinking for some now, one that was influenced by both Lewis and Tolkien, has been that when it comes to any fiction the basic question to ask is:

    Is the story a work of Inspiration (Imagination), or conscious invention (Fancy)?

    That’s probably a question few would ever ask, or even consider important. Yet I think the question is essential when evaluating any potential artwork that’s set before you. Without denying invention it’s place in the scheme of things, it’s ultimately Inspired works, I think, that have a claim as (at least potentially) great. The rest can only be good (yet valuable, even lasting, for all that).

    I’d say that Ms. Lee’s Mockingbird fits the Inspired label well.

    What worries me is that it does seem that, between the lines, what’s really happening is Ms. Lee’s publishers more or less taking advantage of her “as a business and a brand name” than as a person.

    If any of this seems far fetched, please just remember that Ms. Rowling wrote “The Silkworm” as, in part, an expose of what’s wrong with the publishing world. To get an idea of how different the book world Rowling knows is from what it “used” to be, consult “The Time of their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers” by Al Silverman, then go back and read “Silkworm”. It’s all kind of heartbreaking, really.

    The real kicker is none this will matter to a any except a small minority. Even those who claim to like “Mockingbird” may not be able to see what all the fuss is about. The reason for that, I think, has something to do with what Inklings influenced critic Edgar Wind pointed out.

    In one of his books, Wind “suggested that the wide diffusion of art today, and with it the great expansion of our artistic horizons, is made possible by a facile response to art, by a certain ease we have acquired in touching the surface of many different artistic experiences without getting seriously involved in any (Wind, Art and Anarchy, 17)”.

    All in all, I worry how this will effect not only how books are marketed, but also id a kind facile censorship, involving what big publisher’s “believe” the audience will or won’t like, and how this may ultimately effect what authors, even undisputed great ones may turn to writing (often in desperation?).

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