Go Set a Watchman: The Phenomenon

By Stephen Fender 

In 1960, when Harper Lee produced To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel became a sensation almost from the beginning. Within two years it had been translated into ten languages, won a Pulitzer Prize, been adapted as an Oscar winning movie, and spent 88 weeks on the American bestseller lists. It has never been out of print; by now world sales have climbed to well over 30 million copies, and the book is staple required reading in schools all over the English-speaking world.

And Harper Lee never wrote another — or so we thought. Way back in 1964 she was working on another story set in a small Alabama town, to be called “The Long Goodbye”, but she abandoned it.

Now on July 14, after a long life of swearing she would never publish another work of fiction, she — or someone acting on her behalf — is about to produce another novel.Mockingbird, set in 1936, was about Scout Finch, a young girl growing up in a segregated southern town. Now in the new work, Go Set a Watchman¸ Scout returns to her home town 20 years later to ask her father what he has made of the main events in the great black civil rights struggles in the 1950s.

The literary world is all in a fluster. Bookstores all over London are planning parties and midnight openings.

So it may come as something of a surprise to hear that this “new” novel was written in 1957. Part of a series of stories that ranged over time from the thirties to the fifties, it included much of the young Scout’s adventures. When it was rejected by the publisher, Tay Hohoff, an editor at J. B. Lippincott &Co., persuaded her to dissect out the stories of the young Scout and make them into a novel. Two and a half years later, Lee produced To Kill A Mickingbird, and (for once it’s literally true to say) the rest is History.

So what is Go Set a Watchman? Sequel? Prequel? Out-takes? Hard to say, but with all the hoopla it will certainly sell — at least at first. And if it redirects readers to its better known stable-mate, what’s the harm in that?

Stephen Fender also wrote The Connell Guide to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

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