Last week, America lost a literary icon. Harper Lee, the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, died at the age of 89 in Monroeville, Alabama.
Her first novel, published in 1960, has left an indelible imprint on our culture — it did for me — as it magnified both the disparities and injustices with race and class, and highlighted gender roles prevalent at the time.
In a perfect world, Lee’s legacy would have ended there, perhaps punctuated with the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom award. That’s not a bad send-off. But instead, among rumors of declining health and pushy publishers, the author agreed to the release of the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, entitled Go Set a Watchman.
There’s been a lot of speculation about Lee’s second release. Some said her health created a level of incompetence that prompted a willingness to sign-off on Watchman. I can see that.
The book, which centers on a 26-year-old Scout encountering bigotry in her hometown, was generally panned by critics. Most of that is due to Scout’s father, the immortalized Atticus Finch. In the second installment, he was portrayed as a racist. Many felt that the book was incomplete, and that it wasn’t ready for the masses and more of a first draft. I wish it wasn’t ever published.
Has Watchman tarnished the brand of Harper Lee?
The release of the Go Set a Watchman brought this question to mind, and sadly, I feel it rings true.
Lee was 87 at the time of the book’s release. You just can’t pay me to believe she was pining for another big-time release, especially with 54 years having passed since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. It surely seems like she was pressured into a release that could (and did) bring a lot of other people a bunch of money.
Whether or not my speculation is true, what is true is that the release of Watchman tarnished the perfection of what was an flawless first statement. The mystique surrounding Lee was derailed.
Look at it another way. Brand anthropology means finding “what the target audience believes.”
Prior to the release of Watchman, the connotative beliefs about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird were bountifully positive. She was a legend, who had one perfect book in her. That’s all she needed as there were a lifetime of lessons in it.
Lee’s publishers should have been cognizant of this (because everyone else was) and never, ever, ever, ever pushed a legend into a decision that wasn’t right. Because anything else was against the grain of that perfection.
I am doing my best to forget the mistake of Watchman, but I don’t know if I ever will.