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It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird: Harper Lee 1926-2016

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

harper-lee_0Harper Lee passed away at the age of 89 last month. She was a literary giant and wrote one of the most famous and beloved novels of the twentieth century: To Kill a Mockingbird. It was only last year that her second book, a predecessor of To Kill a Mockingbird, was published. This book, Go Set a Watchman, was as divisive as her first book was beloved. Many thought that Go Set a Watchman was published without her say-so, and that Ms. Lee was taken advantage of. And the views on race relations and the language used shocked many readers.

The book is so beloved that, according to Variety, Aaron Sorkin will be writing the script for a new Broadway play, adapting To Kill a Mockingbird for the 2017-2018 season. There is precedent: In 1990, a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel debuted in Monroeville, where it’s performed each May by local actors. The performances take an almost reverential approach, with audiences taking part in order to ritually enact scenes of segregation and justice denied.

Truman Capote

Truman Capote

So why do we love To Kill A Mockingbird so much? Firstly, it’s one of the few books that kids in high school actually like to read. Consider the reading lists, it is a relatively shorter and easier to read book. And even though it’s themes are overt and plentiful, it doesn’t feel like Harper Lee was beating you over the head with themes (I’m looking at you Mr Dickens and your paid by the word description of how the wine and the street represented the Revolution).  Also, it is one of the few books that made the transition to film well. We all picture Gregory Peck when we think of Atticus Finch, and he was the epitome of the thoughtful, kind father we all wished we had. And we all related to Scout, who was an adventuresome tomboy learning about the world at his knee. And finally, as we all now know, the neighbor Dill was based off of a young Truman Capote.

During the years immediately following the novel’s publication, Harper Lee enjoyed the attention its popularity garnered her, granting interviews, visiting schools, and attending events honoring the book. In 1961, her book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.   The popularity snowballed and she began to turn down interviews sometime in 1964; she said the questions were monotonous. She also thought the attention was bordering on invasive and would take away the impact of the book. She was also quite shy all her life. Several times Lee said, once in a phone interview with Oprah, that the character in the book she most identified with is Boo Radley.

Only one year after its publication To Kill a Mockingbird had been translated into ten languages. Through the years, it has been translated into more than 40 languages. The novel has never been out of print in hardcover or paperback. A 1991 survey by the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated behind only the Bible in books that are “most often cited as making a difference”. It is considered by some to be the Great American Novel.48bbe6e4f83767fb9933a723e8f1196d

People celebrated across the United States in 2010 when To Kill a Mockingbird turned 50. A book was even published in honor of the 50th anniversary–Scout, Atticus, & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was full of famous readers writing to Harper Lee telling her how much they loved her book. The 2010 documentary film in the PBS American Masters series Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on the background of the book and the film as well as their impact on readers and viewers.

And to have the second book Go Set a Watchman published in 2015 was a final gift to all of her fans. It was also a surprise, since so many readers had idolized Atticus, to see racist words pop up and find out that Calpurnia had retired. Many book groups are still discussing Lee’s new book. It is a nice legacy for her to leave us. Thank you Harper Lee for your magnificent To Kill a Mockingbird and your surprising postscript novel Go Set a Watchman. The world was better for your presence and your writing gifts.

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Harper Lee’s publishing a new book: Go set a Watchman

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department harper-lee-main-lHarper Lee has published a new book, after over 50 years of saying she would never write another book!

There has been some discussion as to whether Go Set a Watchman was published without Ms. Lee’s consent. Her lawyer, for most of her adult life, was her older sister, who passed away a couple of years ago. She did a valiant job of protecting Harper Lee’s legacy. And now with failing sight and hearing, many were questioning whether or not someone was taking advantage of her ill health. The state of Alabama actually investigated claims of elder abuse and interviewed Ms. Lee, but found the claims unfounded. The last we’ve read and heard is that Ms. Lee has all her faculties and does indeed know what’s what and she did indeed authorize the release of her new book.

According to HarperCollins Publishers, which purchased the North American rights to publish Go Set A Watchman, Ms. Lee’s new book was written in the 1950s. “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. 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. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.” It was found by Ms. Lee’s friend and lawyer Tonja Carter last fall, in what was described as a secure place. Reportedly, she found the new manuscript attached to an older edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. She thought it was Lee’s first novel; then realized the story was set later, and the characters were older as well.

Harper-LeeGo Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s, twenty years after To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus. She has to face both personal and political issues as she tries to understand her father better and her own feelings about Maycomb. The title comes from the Bible – Jeremiah 21:6 “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, “Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” “ Most critics have said that this quote alludes to Atticus who Scout sees as the watchman or caretaker of Maycomb.

The Wall Street Journal will publish the first chapter online on July 10, four days before the July 14th publication date. For those who’d rather listen than read, WSJ will also be publishing the first chapter of the audiobook, narrated by Reese Witherspoon, that day as well.

And yes, we will have copies of the book available for check out on July 14. You can put a hold on the book now. Read the rest of this entry

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