Harper Lee’s New Novel
I am amazed at how much media attention has been focused on the summer 2015 publication of Harper Lee’s follow-up novel to To Kill A Mockingbird. The new book is to be called Go Set A Watchman, and this title seems somewhat clumsy in comparison to Lee’s beloved novel that is a staple of secondary school education in the United States as well as internationally.
Guess how much a 6-month royalty check pays for a book that was published in 1960?
The New York Times reports that a six month royalty paid to the author for To Kill A Mockingbird was $1.7 million dollars. If this is true, the book may make more money than any fifty-year-old title of its kind. The Great Gatsby certainly doesn’t rake in that kind of revenue.
There is something mysterious and strange about the sudden appearance of this new novel. It has been reported that the manuscript is actually the first book Lee ever wrote, but it was shelved at the suggestion of her editor at J.B. Lippincott. Lee then wrote a fiction that took place twenty years earlier than her rejected manuscript. To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960 to great acclaim and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
The book is so self-assured, mature and a stylistically resonant, that many people wonder if Lee’s close friend, Truman Capote, had either edited it heavily or even wrote parts of it. If this is true, it would certainly not be the first time that a great book had a ghost contributor or editor. There is, for example, a very famous memoir that was published in the last ten years, and many people behind the scenes who read the writer’s short magazine pieces (before they were edited and published) swear that she couldn’t possibly have written this book and cite her husband, a fine craftsman in his own right, as the real power behind it.
Then again, unexpected rapturous success can discourage, even hinder an author’s future output. When you sit down with the blank page your mind must be clear. It’s hard to write when you begin worrying that your next book might not live up to the last one you wrote unselfconsciously and that took you and the literary establishment by surprise.
This certainly happened to John Knowles, who wrote A Separate Piece and who at some point wrote a bland forgettable sequel to this classic coming of age novel. Unlike Harper Lee, Knowles went on to publish several other books, none of them much admired, and this left him feeling very bitter. I remember a long conversation I had with him at a swimming pool in Florida where we both used to go and do laps. I was amazed that somebody who once had such a great success could, later on in his life, be so miserable. I know better now. Sometimes early success leads to middle-aged failure, which can be particularly difficult for people who are used to being in the limelight.
I do find it curious, however, that Harper Lee never published another book, that she would have rested on the laurels on her first one. Most novelists I know have a fire in their belly, a yearning to tell some story and they are constantly looking for material, dreaming of new ideas, new books. And many, like Philip Roth, get second and third winds and write fine books well into their late seventies.
But whatever ends up as Go Set A Watchman will assuredly be edited and polished and handsomely produced, all as a way of helping it measure up its predecessor. And we may never know how good it really is.