Harper Lee was only 34 in 1960, when she released To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most famous American novels of the 2oth century. Despite the pleas of readers and the book’s enormous success—critically acclaimed and turned into an Oscar-winning 1962 film starring Gregory Peck, the novel continues to sell a million copies a year—Lee never published another. Until now, that is: Go Set a Watchman will be released in July, a few months after Lee’s 89th birthday.
Even so, Mockingbird, which tackles themes ranging from racial prejudice to a young girl’s coming of age, remains Lee’s last written novel. She wrote Go Set a Watchman first, finishing it by the mid-1950s, even though the new book will effectively function as a sequel to Mockingbird. The Alabama author set Watchman in contemporary times, meaning its plot unfolds about 20 years after the Depression-era setting of Mockingbird, when racial tension has only intensified in the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb. The novels feature many of the same characters, including Mockingbird’s beloved child heroine, Scout, now grown up and back in Maycomb to visit her father, Atticus.
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When Lee submitted Watchman to a publisher, her editor responded that the best parts were Scout’s childhood flashbacks, and told Lee to rewrite it from that perspective. As a first-time writer, Lee said in a statement announcing the new release, “I did as I was told.” The reworked story became To Kill a Mockingbird and the original version, Lee assumed, was thrown away. But her lawyer discovered a copy last fall and, Lee says, “after much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication.”
This time around, publisher HarperCollins declares, it’s not the child’s-eye view that resonates with those who have read Watchman, but the “compelling and ultimately moving narrative about a father and a daughter’s relationship.”
Sixty years after it was written, Go Set a Watchman will come into a world of American race relations both changed and depressingly familiar. Lee wrote it in the era of Rosa Parks’s Montgomery bus boycott and civil-rights legislation, when, in many ways, the wind seemed to be in the sails of racial equality, and it will come to print in the aftermath of Ferguson, Mo. The attitudes and expectations of white and black Americans have transformed themselves time and again over the decades in between, and Lee’s reception may be very different.