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Fear of revision: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’

| Thursday, February 12, 2015

harper-web-Susan Zhu

If you have any interest in the book industry at all, you’ve probably heard that Harper Lee is publishing a new book. Yes, the great Harper Lee, perhaps the greatest “one-hit wonder” of the American literary canon, the almighty authoress of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” is publishing a “sequel,” 55 years after her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

The reaction to this announcement is not the same sort of vague excitement coupled with confusion that greeted J.K. Rowling when she followed up Harry Potter with the not nearly as compelling “Casual Vacancy.” It’s certainly not the overwhelming hysteria half-expected for the next Game of Thrones, and it’s definitely not the annoyance felt when Sara Shepherd didn’t stop writing her “Pretty Little Liars” series after the fourth book. It’s not even the vague trepidation I certainly had when Christopher Paolini expanded his trilogy of “Eragon” to a quartet.

No, Harper Lee’s announcement (or, rather, her lawyer’s announcement) was greeted with some excitement, but primarily with confusion, outrage and, perhaps, just a little fear.

A lot of this negative press can be traced to a couple of issues. First, Harper Lee has been notoriously shy of the public limelight since the media frenzy that greeted the publication of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” She, seemingly, abhors journalism and allowed her sister to act as her mouthpiece for most of her life. Like J.D. Salinger, she had no interest in being a media magnet like J.K. Rowling.

After her sister died, she got a new lawyer, Tonja Carter. Carter, Lee’s agent and her publishing company stand to make millions off of this “sequel.” Let’s be honest, there’s very few of us who aren’t at least a tiny bit curious to see what Scout got up to in her latter years.

Second, Lee has lived in an assisted living facility since 2007 after suffering a debilitating stroke. There is some concern that her living situation makes it impossible for her to control her own destiny and that her agents are taking advantage. Her previous shyness seems to support this idea.

Third, it seems odd that this book would be published now. “Go Set a Watchman” was actually written before “To Kill A Mockingbird” and, yet, for some reason, it was never published before. There doesn’t seem to be any catalyst for this sudden change of heart and people are, rightfully, suspicious.

Fourth, after the debacle last year with Marja Mills’ “unauthorized” biography of Harper Lee, it seems strange that Lee would choose to take the spotlight. After all, we’ve only recently been reminded of how very little she wants to talk to the media.

But all of these reasons, as rational as they may seem, don’t cover all of the issues to which I think people are reacting. The issue is, I think, that deep down in all of our hearts, we know that sequels are never as good as the original. We know that “To Kill A Mockingbird” was a once-in-a-lifetime type of book and that there’s no way for Harper Lee to follow it up. It can only muck up whatever ending we’ve given Scout ourselves in the years we’ve loved and read “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

It is this fear, I think, that drives our negative reactions to Lee’s announcements. Certainly, the concerns over her own ability to make this decision are very real and I think that people have presented some legitimate reasons to hold back the publishing for the moment. But I think deeper than this are worries that Harper Lee could never measure up to the standard she set herself. And, to be honest, we don’t really want her to try.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” is the type of novel that shapes a generation. It embodied many of the racial injustices that pervaded an entire way of life in America. It’s been called the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of its time and there’s a reason Harriet Beecher Stowe isn’t known for anything else.

For years, we’ve treated Lee’s book as we treat classics like “Romeo and Juliet” or “The Great Gatsby.” We’ve read it, loved it and analyzed it — we’ve made our relationships with the characters and the story line and we’ve made our peace with it. And we’ve done so without any interference from the author.

Lee is not J.K. Rowling telling us retroactively that Hermione and Ron shouldn’t be together; she’s not Sara Shepherd dragging out her novels; she’s certainly not Stephanie Meyer beginning the same novel from a new perspective and throwing a fit when it gets leaked. She’s been silent, and we’ve reveled in that. We treated her as we treat all dead authors, like a silent ghostly authority who can say whatever we want them to and who will never come back to correct us.

“Go Set a Watchmen” threatens to undo all of that. It’s the threatening voice of Harper Lee coming back to tell us how wrong we all were and I don’t think we’re prepared for that. As we’ve learned from all of J.K. Rowling’s retroactive facts and revisions, there’s nothing quite like the author’s voice to ruin the head canon we made for ourselves.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Caelin Miltko

I am a senior English and Irish language major, with a minor in Journalism. I spent the last year abroad in Dublin, Ireland and am currently a Walsh RA living in Pangborn.

Contact Caelin