Go Set A Watchman was actually written prior to Mockingbird
Although the ‘new’ book is set 20 years after her first novel, acting as a sequel, it was actually written before To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee wrote the book in the mid-1950s, but set it aside when her editor recommended writing another novel (which became To Kill A Mockingbird) from the young Scout Finch’s point of view. The manuscript was then lost for decades, only to be found by her lawyer at the end of last year. There will not be any changes to the book; it will be published exactly as it was originally written.
Go Set A Watchman, which will be published on July 14th, was given its title from a passage in Isaiah 21:6 which says: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth”. The novel follows an adult Scout Finch who travels from New York to Alabama to visit her father. Here, she has to deal with the feelings that come with being in the town where she spent her childhood.
To Kill A Mockingbird nearly didn’t make it
Lee’s agent sent Mockingbird out to ten publishers, all of which turned it down. Eventually, the publisher Lippincott decided to take it on, despite it still needing much work.
Lee herself had her doubts regarding the success of Mockingbird, expecting a “quick, merciful death” from the critics. In fact, she became so frustrated when writing, and revising, the book (which was then known as Atticus) that, in 1959, she opened up her apartment window and threw the manuscript out into the New York snow. She spoke to her editor, Tay Hohoff, saying that she was fed up and couldn’t go on, but he ordered her to go outside, pick up the pages and keep at it.
Some of the early reviews were anything but positive
Although the book went on to be a phenomenal success all over the world, some of the initial reviews were far from praising. For example, in August, 1960, the Atlantic Monthly critic Phoebe Adams referred to the book as “sugar-water served with humor [sic]”. She went on to say: “It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult”. The year later, however, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Truman Capote was not the author of Mockingbird
There were many rumours back then, and still today, that Truman Capote was the real author of To Kill A Mockingbird. Indeed, they were very close friends, and Harper helped Capote with his research for In Cold Blood – a novel about the real-life murder of the Clutter family. An extensive quote was written by him on Mockingbird’s first edition, praising the character of the author. This was taken by many to mean he was referring to himself, and he did not make any major attempts to deny these suggestions. However, these rumours are said to be nothing more than that – rumours; Lee’s writing is nothing like Capote’s, and he reportedly only saw the finished manuscript once, just before it was about to go to print. Lee’s sister, Alice, has said that the rumour is “the biggest lie ever told”.
However, Scout’s friend Dill was based on Truman Capote
Dill, Scout’s friend in To Kill A Mockingbird, used to visit his aunt, Scout and Jem’s neighbour. Truman Capote (or Truman Persons as he was known back then) and Harper Lee were childhood friends – they both loved reading and writing and used to create stories together on Lee’s father’s typewriter. They met when he used to spend summers with his aunts, who were Lee’s neighbours, so Dill is said to be based on the eccentric and rather fragile Capote. Capote also confirmed that Boo Radley was very much inspired by a man living in their neighbourhood, claiming: “He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything she wrote about is absolutely true”.
To Kill A Mockingbird was voted ‘the number one book to read before you die’
In 2006, To Kill A Mockingbird topped the World Book Day poll, in which librarians across Britain were asked “Which book should every adult read before they die?” The book was followed by the Bible, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, 1984 by George Orwell and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. One of the voters said that the book has “all the factors of a great read. It is touching and funny but has a serious message about prejudice, fighting for justice and coming of age”.
The book has sold more than 30 million copies in English worldwide and has been translated into more than 40 languages. Even all these decades later, it continues to sell around a million copies each year.
Harper Lee loved the movie adaptation
Lee did not just approve the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird, she described it as “one of the best translations of a book to film ever made”. In fact, she was so impressed with the film that she became very good friends with the actor who played Atticus Finch, Gregory Peck. She is said to remain very close with his family today; the fact that Peck’s grandson is named Harper after the author is testament to that.
Harper Lee has always shied away from the spotlight
Lee has always been wary of the attention that came with her book, saying that “sheer numbness” would come over her. Following the publication of Mockingbird, she avoided public appearances and interviews. In 1964, she talked about public encouragement, saying: “I hoped for a little… but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected”.
Lee will not be partaking in any publicity surrounding her new book; at 89, she now lives in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in assisted-living accommodation.
To Kill A Mockingbird is based on Harper Lee’s childhood in Alabama
The novel is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression, and bears a striking resemblance to the town Lee grew up in: Monroeville, Alabama. During Lee’s childhood, there were several trials of black men for the rape of white women, which is thought to have served as the basis for Tom Robinson’s case in the book.
Like Atticus Finch, Lee’s father was a lawyer and defended black men who had been accused of murder. While her mother did not die when she was young (like Scout’s), she was very unwell. Her brother, like Jem, was four years her senior.