“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”
– Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Fifty-five years is a long time to wait for a second novel, but more than half a century after her debut, it appears that Harper Lee is publishing a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman is set in the 1950s and follows Scout, now grown, as she returns to the tired old town of Maycomb, Alabama. After mulling the news over for the better part of a week, I still don’t know whether to be excited or nervous.
Most of us grew up reading Harper Lee’s seminal first novel. It is a masterpiece; a cornerstone of American literature. It’s no surprise to me that Harper Lee was unable to follow it up. Lightning rarely strikes twice.
So, I find it strange that this second book (or, more accurately, first book, as it was written before Mockingbird) is coming to light now. Now, I don’t know if Lee is being taken advantage of in her old age. I don’t know if the book will even be any good. But no matter what this new book is or isn’t, its publication will forever change the world of To Kill a Mockingbird that we all know and love. Its very existence will change the way future generations will read about the little girl watching her father defend a black man in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s. It will offer a different lens through which to understand the characters and events of Lee’s first book and that worries me.
At the heart of my concern is a question — at what point does a work of art cease to be the property of its creator? When a book becomes one of the greatest works of literature of an entire century, does the author retain the right to add or take away from it? At what point does it become part of our culture? Something bigger than anyone, even its author? Of course it’s Lee’s legacy, but it also belongs to all of us who have read the book and loved it. At what point should a great monument be left alone to be what it is?
A new book will hit the shelves this summer and it will change something. Wherever you are, stand up. To Kill a Mockingbird is passing.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer and reader in Tacoma, WA. You can leave your comments below or find him on Twitter.