Harper Lee is pretty pissed off at us. She unfortunately died in February, but I bet she’s not letting that stop her. She seemed like the type who held a grudge.
“Who, us?” you ask, hand fluttering to your chest, eyelashes batting as though excessive inconsequential body movement will ward off such accusations. “But we LOVE To Kill a Mockingbird!”
It’s true. We love To Kill a Mockingbird. I would venture a guess that it’s one of the only works of classic literature that people say that they love after (and this is key) having actually read it. Most of the time we say we’ve read classic literature, but really we read the first page, Google a quick overview, and hope that it doesn’t come up in conversation before a reasonably faithful mini-series airs. (This may or may not have been my personal strategy regarding War and Peace.)
But we actually read To Kill a Mockingbird, didn’t we, and we fell in love. Many American schools still require it in probably 9th or 10th grade, and then many of us re-read it when we’re older. I know people who read it every year.
We love the movie, too, and cross our fingers that no one ever remakes it, because Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch forever and always. (Harper Lee thought so, too.)
But none of this changes the fact that Harper Lee is, I assume, pretty pissed off, because whatever the psychology term for loving too much is, we did that to her first book, and it killed any possibility of subsequent novels from her.
Don’t believe me? To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Within six months it had sold over 500,000 copies. A year later it had been picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Literary Guild, and Reader’s Digest, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Two years after publication, Horton Foote wrote the screenplay and made the film that would earn eight Academy Award nominations and win three, including best actor for Gregory Peck (we’ve established that we all love Mr. Peck as Atticus). Over 40 million copies of the book have been sold, and it’s been translated into more than 40 languages. It is often listed in surveys as second only to the Bible as the most influential book.
Well boo-hoo, poor Harper Lee was too gosh-darned successful and don’t we feel awful for her?
And yet, for a woman from a small town in Alabama to be launched into the world so quickly, and then almost immediately set upon to write a second masterpiece (and it was nothing less than another masterpiece that we wanted from her), it must have been overwhelming at best, horrifyingly claw-your-eyes-out annoying and stressful, at worst.
But here’s the thing. Harper Lee DID write a second book, sort of. She helped Truman Capote write In Cold Blood. Lee and Capote were childhood friends (Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird is based on Capote) and worked on Capote’s book together. The collaboration is shrouded in some mystery in terms of who did how much, but Lee felt she did enough to warrant more recognition than Capote was willing to give, thus ending their relationship.
So far, then, we have one book that Lee did a great deal to help research and write; yet she did not receive credit and lost a good friend over it. But still, all she hears after In Cold Blood is published in 1966 is “When are you going to write that second masterpiece?”
There are rumors that Lee tried to write another novel and failed. There are rumors that she did nothing but write throughout the rest of her life and now has oodles of material waiting to be published according to whatever guidelines are in her will. I don’t know if any of the rumors are true, but I do know that this was one feisty woman who got pissed off and did something about it.
I think that’s where Go Set a Watchman came from; Harper Lee got so damn tired of being asked about another masterpiece that she finally said, “Fine. You want another novel? You want more Scout and Boo and Atticus? Here it is, people. Be careful what you wish for!”
Though let me add here that I am a big fan of Go Set a Watchman. I may be the only person on Earth who actually liked it, but I’m loud and proud about it. If you go into it understanding that it is a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird (literally, Go Set a Watchman is the book she submitted; To Kill a Mockingbird is what came from her editors’ notes regarding successes and failures of Go Set a Watchman), then you can see the ghosts of To Kill a Mockingbird and they are precious nuggets in an otherwise lumpy, awkward book. The fact that Go Set a Watchman is, content-wise, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird is confusing because we read them in the wrong order, which is really the right order because both books are more brilliant that way. And yes, Atticus is more complicated in Go Set a Watchman, but that’s what happens to parents when children grow up and realize the adults they’ve idolized are only human.
Enough about that. Maybe my next installment for this column will be why I’m so pissed off because I’m the only one who loves Go Set a Watchman. But back to my point…
I think that Harper Lee knew that Go Set a Watchman would tick everybody off. In fact, I think that’s the main reason she agreed (and despite rumors to the contrary, we know that she did agree) to publish it. She’d spent 50 years being asked for another novel, a masterpiece, after writing a book that she knew she couldn’t duplicate. She was fed up with all of the begging and gave us the new/old book to shut us up. So there.
Hey, Boo. Payback’s a bitch.