Saturday, February 7, 2015

Return of the Mockingbird


The literary world was rocked this week by news that a lost Harper Lee manuscript reemerged. To Kill a Mockingbird was always touted as the author’s first and only book. Go Set a Watchmen tells the story of Scout as an adult. Lee supposedly wrote it first, but the adult Scout’s interactions with Atticus so entranced the editor that he convinced her to set down the childhood story. The rest is publishing history. I have great fondness for To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I read in school. It had a spunky character in Scout at a time when girls in stories were generally relegated to being sweetly submissive to the boys. It was also one of the first assigned readings that was gripping and relevant rather than dull and preachy. I put more trust in my teachers after that.

Naturally, this announcement has all fiction lovers in a tizzy. The discovery of a new work by Lee raises many questions and reads like a piece of fantasy itself. How can a manuscript get lost for over fifty years? Surprisingly, for those of us who remember life before word processing, this is the least mysterious aspect of the puzzle. Back in the fifties when this book was supposedly written, everything was done on a typewriter. If you wanted a copy you slipped in a piece of carbon paper or you had a typist create a duplicate. Nobody had access at home to a copy machine or duplicators, as they were called. Even most businesses didn’t have them. It wasn’t unusual for a manuscript to be lost in a fire, misplaced, or even eaten by a rambunctious pet dog. More than one author back then shed copious tears over work tragically gone forever.

However, Go Set a Watchman was apparently attached to the original manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird and just discovered by Lee's lawyer. Reports are murky as to where it’s been all these years. Misfiled under Accounts Receivable? Stuffed under the mattress? Seriously? No one touched the original manuscript of the Great American Novel in over fifty years and noticed another haphazardly stuck on the back? You’d think somewhere along the way, a curious person would have picked it up, dusted it off and suggested since To Kill a Mockingbird sold over 40 million copies, by gum, this other one might garner a few fans, too.

For me, the greatest mystery was why Lee didn’t rewrite the book. After all, the story was already in her head. Lee has stated in the past she never felt the need to write again after To Kill a Mockingbird, but rumors circulated over the years that her childhood neighbor and close friend, Truman Capote had a heavy hand in the editing. A second book would surely have put those stories to rest. I admit I’ve puzzled over this. Lee never wrote for enjoyment? Not even for herself? I write every day. Even if Congress passed a law forbidding me from ever publishing, I would still write. I’d write whether anyone read my books or not. Of course, I’ve never penned a classic. Perhaps, something that momentous changes you. Much is gained with overwhelming success, but much may be lost in the process.

Recently, Lee has suffered both the devastating loss of her sister and a stroke. Rumors persist her health is less than ideal. Her lawyer stresses that everything is hunky-dory, but this is the same lawyer who miraculously stumbled upon the missing manuscript. Not much comes from the author herself, and no public sightings. It leads one to wonder if any statements issued in Lee’s name really came from Lee. As I said, mysteries abound.

For the present, the curious discovery of Go Set a Watchman is all quite a head scratcher. Its publication may put to rest the belief that Lee was a one hit wonder, or perhaps, it will raise even more questions than it answers. I’ve already purchased my advanced copy and look forward to getting reacquainted with Scout. I wish you all the best, Miss Lee, and I hope you are looked after by people who are only concerned with your well-being and harbor no hidden agendas.