“Happy as hell.” Those were the words of Harper Lee this past week when it was announced that the 88-year-old author of To Kill a Mockingbird would be releasing a new novel this summer. Go Set a Watchman will chronicle Jean Louise Finch’s (Scout) return to her home in Maycomb, Alabama to visit her father Atticus. Lee has issued statements regarding her hesitation to publish the novel, as it was written even before “Mockingbird”, which was published in 1960, but has decided to follow through with the process.
Over the years, Harper Lee has been widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, even though she has only published one novel in her career. “Mockingbird” swooped in at the perfect time to be one of the most successful novels in history. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement in the South, particularly Alabama, Lee honed in on the racial tensions that surrounded one town and the morally upright lawyer who would teach his children and the rest of the world that “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
It sounds cliché and all, but To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that changed my life. For an eighth grader who hates reading to still say to this day that a book changed his life is a really big deal. I grew close with Scout and Jem. I saw Atticus as a father figure for myself as he courageously defended Tom Robinson, and I was furious when Tom was killed before he could receive any justice. Most importantly, I came to understand why Boo Radley lived in isolation, away from ignorance, away from “justice,” away from hate. I felt myself mature alongside Scout as she and watched together as these events in Maycomb unfolded. She, a fictional child, became my friend.
The announcement of Go Set a Watchman’s publication has made me somewhat uneasy as reports of Harper Lee’s lawyers exploiting her in her old age. Writers and bloggers have compared the situation to Franz Kafka, who requested that his work be burned when he died. Lee may have issues hearing, blindness, and a deteriorating memory, but that does not equal to her death. She understands the immense success that came with To Kill a Mockingbird is something she cannot put herself through again. Her disability does not negate her cognizance.
Ultimately, Lee’s release of Go Set a Watchman couldn’t come at a better time in American history. Our society is becoming more and more polarized in terms of racial issues, stemming from reports across the country of police brutality against minorities following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. While our generation will never understand the full extent of racism prior the Civil Rights movement, we still have a duty to make sure it never happens again.
To Kill a Mockingbird challenged the ideals of the time, contributing to the end of Jim Crow laws and the progression of civil rights, and hopefully “Watchman” can do the same in reminding the people of what is right in terms of justice for every man, woman, and child. If and when Harper Lee is that voice of reason this country needs yet again, you can bet I’ll be happy as hell.