High expectations await upcoming Harper Lee novel

First Posted: 2/6/2015

One day in about 2005, novelist Harper Lee was having breakfast at a diner near her Alabama home when a fan, apologizing for the intrusion, approached to express admiration for Lee’s sole work, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The two chatted, Lee was gracious, the thrilled reader departed. Then Lee, who fiercely protects her privacy, reflected on the encounter.

“I hope I didn’t disappoint her,” she said.

A beloved author revealing her insecurity and perfectionism? Lee, a master of dialogue and detail, would have recognized the poignancy immediately if she had observed it.

Writer Marja Mills was at that breakfast and tells us Lee’s reaction helps explain why the author never published again. “That’s the weight of expectation,” says Mills, who befriended Harper Lee and her sister, Alice Lee, and wrote of the experience in a memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door.”

Mills was as surprised as anyone by this week’s news that Harper Lee wrote another novel, which will be published this summer.

More than a decade ago Alice Lee specifically told Mills, then a Chicago Tribune reporter, there was no second book because her sister said what she intended to say in “Mockingbird.” And who could blame her? Imagine sitting down as a neophyte to write the Great American Novel and then pulling it off! What do you do for an encore?

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a marvel of storytelling, a perfect rendering of small town life in the segregated Deep South. The book tells in flashback the adventures of a young scamp, Scout, and how her father, principled attorney Atticus Finch, comes to represent a black farmhand accused of rape. With its big themes and little moments, “Mockingbird” won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize.

And then?

There are many great literary traditions in America, and one is the disappearing act, as practiced by Salinger and Pynchon. Lee’s version has its peculiarities: She was never a recluse, just private. She stopped giving interviews and split time between a New York apartment and a modest house she shared with her sister in their hometown of Monroeville, Ala.

Harper Lee, 88, suffered a stroke in 2007; her sister died last year at 103. Now Lee’s second book has been found. She says in a statement that she’s pleased it was unearthed and is considered “worthy of publication.” The publisher says he never spoke directly with Harper Lee, but communicated via an attorney.

The new book, “Go Set a Watchman,” is a sequel of sorts, connected umbilically to “Mockingbird.” It also takes place in tiny fictional Maycomb, Ala., in the 1950s, featuring many of the same characters. Scout is an adult, her father is elderly. “Watchman,” though, actually was written first. But Lee’s editor persuaded her the flashback scenes in “Watchman” were the most compelling element so she started over, writing “Mockingbird” as a prelude to “Watchman.”

Second acts raise concern because they rarely surpass the original. In this case, the murky origin of “Watchman,” its sudden reappearance and Lee’s infirmity add layers of mystery: Is it a lost treasure or a glorified first draft of the classic? Will we learn, for example, that the author is a pedestrian writer who had a great editor improving “Mockingbird”?

So “Watchman” will be a novelty until proven otherwise. On the other hand, we readers finally meet Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as an adult and get a return visit to Maycomb. The most we can reasonably expect is the book provides more insight into Lee’s carefully observed world, and more reading pleasure. Even if it fails, the new book cannot diminish “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

That means that, 55 years later, the burden of expectations will be lifted for Harper Lee. If “Go Set a Watchman” does nothing more than inspire readers to pick up “Mockingbird,” for the first time or again, that is enough of a gift.