‘Go, Set a Watchman’ – a wager on Lee’s legacy?

Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ caused a veritable storm in the literary world when it was first published in 1960. Fifty five years later and the news of the imminent publication of a recently rediscovered sequel, ‘Go Set a Watchman’, has caused just such – if not a greater – stir. With millions, including myself, already pre-ordering their copies even four months before its publication, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ has cemented itself in the bestseller lists.

But the publication of a sequel to a novel such as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, which holds such a special place in so many bookshelves, must surely be a risky move? Especially amid the speculation that the novel is being published against the publicity-shy Lee’s will.

Indeed, it does seem somewhat peculiar that news of the novel’s discovery has only come to light after the death of Lee’s older sister Alice, who took care of her financial affairs and was her chief adviser. Not only this, but the fact that Lee is 88 years old, practically blind, profoundly deaf and has suffered from a stroke could certainly lead to questions being raised over whether she is being taken advantage of.

The seemingly cryptic title has been a source of some perplexity. It is actually a biblical quotation from Isaiah 21:6, a prophesy of the fall of Babylon: ‘For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.’ It could be assumed that Atticus is the ‘watchman’, the source of moral guidance in Maycomb. But what to make of the quotation being from a passage professing the fall of Babylon? Could it be referring to the ‘fall of Maycomb’ and the rapidly changing Southern way of life?

As for the novel itself, it is set twenty years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and concerns the grown-up Scout’s return to Maycomb from New York. It was from the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood in ‘Go Set a Watchman’, which publishers preferred, that ‘Mockingbird’ stemmed. This may be the root of another worry – could it be a bad omen that publishers chose originally not to publish ‘Go Set a Watchman’? Will it just be another disappointing sequel?

Lee had previously been regarded as one of the greatest ‘one hit wonder’ novelists, along with Emily Bronte, Sylvia Plath, Oscar Wilde (who although he was a prolific playwright only wrote one novel) and Margaret Mitchell. Now her previously untarnished reputation is being risked.

Fans of Harper Lee have had to wait over half a century for a sequel and the stakes are high. It would seem more than a challenge for a second novel to live up to one such as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

By Rose Grossel

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