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Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman Will Realign the Literary Universe

Pulitzer Prize winner and To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Nov. 5, 2007 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla—2007 Getty Images Pulitzer Prize winner and To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Nov. 5, 2007 in Washington, DC.

Expect Harper Lee's unexpected new book to forever change the way we read To Kill a Mockingbird

Today, to the delight and total consternation of the literary world, HarperCollins announced that it will publish a previously unknown novel by Harper Lee, the author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. The new novel is called Go Set a Watchman, and it deals with the adult life of “Scout” Finch, whom we met Mockingbird as a six-year-old.

When Go Set a Watchman appears in July it will—in subtle but very real ways—realign the literary universe. Among the many things that made Mockingbird special was its singularity: after its release in 1960 Lee never published another book. She’s not the only great one-novel novelist—there’s also Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind)—but they’re increasingly rare birds in an age when writers feel obliged to lash themselves to produce the maximum possible verbiage, over the longest possible career, at any cost.

But to clarify, this isn’t Lee’s second novel—it’s her first. She wrote Go Set a Watchman in the mid-1950s, before To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman is about Scout going back to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama to visit her father, Atticus. At the time the editor she showed it to was more interested in Scout’s memories of her childhood, and suggested Lee write an entire novel just about that. Needless to say she did.

Now the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman has been rediscovered by a friend of Lee’s and will be published in July, unchanged. “After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust,” Lee said in a press release, “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.” (Some doubt has been cast on whether Lee—who at 88 has had some health problems and resides in an assisted living facility—is entirely competent to approve the book’s publication; it’s been pointed out that this announcement comes shortly after Lee’s sister and attorney Alice, who often guided her professional interests, passed away in November. But if there’s anything opportunistic or untoward in the book’s publication, so far it’s in the realm of speculation only.)

It’s hard to think of a precedent in literary history, though there are parallels—for example, the estate of JD Salinger (another one-novel novelist) will in coming years posthumously publish stories dealing with his most famous characters, Holden Caulfield and the Glass family.

It’s anybody’s guess whether Watchman is another masterpiece, but whatever happens it will irreversibly change the way we read To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is one of the great good fathers of American literature, and his relationship with Scout has been a platonic ideal and a template for any number of parents and children. Is Scout now coming back to Maycomb to resolve some lingering, unresolved, previously unknown conflict with him? From now on Mockingbird won’t just be the story of Scout’s childhood, it will be the answer to a question that we never knew had been asked: how did the hero of Go Set a Watchman become the woman that she is?

One mystery that Watchman won’t solve is why Lee never wrote again. That her warm, generous, instantly familiar voice fell silent is one of the enduring enigmas of literary history, and most likely will remain that way. But Watchman will at least tell us whether Lee’s voice was already there, before she wrote Mockingbird, or whether that particular voice arrived to tell that particular story.

As to why it vanished, we may only ever know what Lee said in one of her very few public appearances, when she accepted the Alabama Medal of Freedom in 2001: “Well, it’s better to be silent than be a fool.”

TIME Books

The To Kill a Mockingbird Sequel’s First Printing Will Be 400 Times Bigger Than the Original

How the new novel's first printing stacks up against other much-hyped books

To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee is set to publish her first book in 55 years this summer, and many in the literary world are rejoicing.

The legendary one-book writer decided to end her career as a novelist to avoid the publicity she faced following Mockingbird‘s massive success, which included a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award-winning film adaptation. Mockingbird’s popularity means it’s no surprise that the sequel, Go Set a Watchman (which Lee wrote in the 1950s but set aside), will have a first printing of 2,000,000 copies.

That’s a massive number for a first printing, which represents a publisher’s estimate for a book’s immediate demand. It’s even more notable considering Watchman isn’t part of a beloved fantasy or thriller series, which often see high first printing counts.

Here’s how Watchman‘s first printing stacks up against other heavily hyped novels, from the final books of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, to last year’s Pulitzer winner The Goldfinch.

It’s also worth noting just how much the popularity of Lee and these other authors have grown: Lee’s Mockingbird had a first printing of about 5,000, while J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book — get ready — had a first printing of only 500.


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So Where Has Harper Lee Been All These Years?

Harper Lee
Rob Carr—AP Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. on Aug. 20, 2007.

The To Kill a Mockingbird author returns after decades out of the spotlight

Today, Harper Lee’s publisher announced that the novelist will release her second novel in July. Lee, age 88, has become a part of the American canon with To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of a young girl’s coming of age against the backdrop of racism in 1930s Alabama. The novel is widely taught and earned her a Pulitzer Prize.

But it’s not just To Kill a Mockingbird‘s success that makes Lee’s news so remarkable. Lee is widely considered a true, and rare, literary recluse, having walked away from stratospheric success and publishing no additional books, despite decades of mounting interest. Lee does not grant interviews, and what articles she has written have been few and far between, including a 2006 item on her love of reading for O, the Oprah Magazine.

Lee, who resides in Monroeville, Ala., still, has reportedly worked on various projects through the years, including a novel whose manuscript she has said was stolen from her and a nonfiction book she simply walked away from. (Her new book, Go Set a Watchman, is neither; it’s the original draft, featuring Scout as an adult woman in the 1950s, that she rewrote to create Mockingbird.) But by all accounts, the author for whom writing To Kill a Mockingbird was a stressful, laborious process (and who’s been cruelly tarred for years with rumors that she did not even write it), had until recently lived a fairly harmonious life.

In 2011, though, Lee released a statement that she had not participated in a forthcoming book by the reporter Marja Mills, kicking off a period of intense speculation about her acuity and entanglements. Mills’s book, The Mockingbird Next Door, took as its subject a period of time in which Mills lived next door to Lee and her elder sister Alice. The incident is mired in controversy, with Lee strongly implying that her older sister participated in the book due to diminished capacities brought on by old age and Mills outright stating “I question that Nelle [Harper Lee’s real name] really wrote the letter that was released in her name this week.” An article published by New York last year raised questions over lawyer Tonja Carter’s involvement in Lee’s life; Carter, who has power of attorney over Lee, reportedly sued the nonprofit museum in Lee’s hometown that had long sold Mockingbird memorabilia. (In a lengthy statement about her new book, Lee notes that Carter “discovered” it and that “a handful of people I trust” encouraged the book’s publication.)

The controversy stirred up by the manner of reporting Mills’s recent book overshadowed what it revealed about Lee: That, having walked away from the spotlight, Lee was very happy. The novelist enjoys a small-town life colored by coffee at McDonald’s and salads from Burger King, reading Britain’s Times Literary Supplement and every day feeding the town ducks. As Lee has said: “It’s better to be silent than to be a fool.” But, to those that know her in her hometown, she’s by all accounts neither; sharp-witted and a presence in town. Soon, her fans can only hope, she’ll be the same once more on the literary scene.

TIME Books

Read TIME’s Original Review of To Kill a Mockingbird

Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images Pulitzer Prize winner and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House November 5, 2007 in Washington, DC.

'Author Lee, 34, an Alabaman, has written her first novel with all of the tactile brilliance and none of the preciosity generally supposed to be standard swamp-warfare issue for Southern writers.'

More than half a century has passed since TIME reviewed Harper Lee’s first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird — but this summer TIME may have a second opportunity to review this celebrated and reclusive author’s work, when the publishing house Harper releases her recently discovered second novel, Go Set a Watchman. The publisher announced on Tuesday that the novel — which was actually written before Mockingbird — will be available on July 14.

TIME’s first review of To Kill a Mockingbird appeared in an Aug. 1, 1960 edition of the magazine, under the headline, “About Life & Little Girls.” While the reviewer doesn’t hold back on the praise, perhaps no one at the time could have anticipated the sensation the book would become.

Here is TIME’s original review, in full:

Clearly, Scout Finch is no ordinary five-year-old girl—and not only because she amuses herself by reading the financial columns of the Mobile Register, but because her nine-year-old brother Jem allows her to tag along when he and Dill Harris try to make Boo Radley come out.

Boo is the Radley son who has not shown his face outside the creaky old family house for 30 years and more, probably because he has “shy ways,” but possibly —an explanation the children much prefer—because his relatives have chained him to his bed. Dill has the notion that Boo might be lured out if a trail of lemon drops were made to lead away from his doorstep. Scout and Jem try a midnight invasion instead, and this stirs up so much commotion that Jem loses his pants skittering back under the fence.

Scout and her brother live in Maycomb, Alabama, where every family that amounts to anything has a streak—a peculiar streak, or a morbid streak, or one involving a little ladylike tippling at Lydia Pinkham bottles filled with gin. The Finch family streak is a good deal more serious —it is an overpowering disposition toward sanity. This is the flaw that makes Jem interrupt the boasting of a lineage-proud dowager to ask “Is this the Cousin Joshua who was locked up for so long?” And it is what compels Lawyer Atticus Finch, the children’s father, to defend a Negro who is charged with raping a white woman. The rape trial, Jem’s helling, and even Boo Radley are deeply involved in the irregular and very effective education of Scout Finch. By the time she ends her first-person account at the age of nine, she has learned that people must be judged, but only slowly and thoughtfully.

Author Lee, 34, an Alabaman, has written her first novel with all of the tactile brilliance and none of the preciosity generally supposed to be standard swamp-warfare issue for Southern writers. The novel is an account of an awakening to good and evil, and a faint catechistic flavor may have been inevitable. But it is faint indeed; Novelist Lee‘s prose has an edge that cuts through cant, and she teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life. (A notable one: “Naming people after Confederate generals makes slow steady drinkers.”) All in all, Scout Finch is fiction’s most appealing child since Carson McCullers’ Frankie got left behind at the wedding.

See the page as it originally appeared, here in the TIME Vault

TIME Culture

Why We’re Still Searching for the ‘Great American Novel’

A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in London, England on June 13, 2013.
Oli Scarff—Getty Images A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in London, England on June 13, 2013.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

My country 'tis a book

Most credentialed literary critics disdain it as a grandiose hyperbole, and creative writers tend to speak of it in jest. But for almost 150 years, all of us—writers, readers, cultural trend-watchers—have been obsessed with the idea of the “Great American Novel,” a piece of literature that somehow captures the gestalt of the whirling multitudes that make up our ambitious country at a crucial or defining moment.

What first drew me to the subject of the Great American Novel idea was the strange obstinacy of its persistence. After reading hundreds of candidates and thousands of critical commentaries on those books, it dawned on me that the leading contenders, as a group, offer us something uncannily close to a DNA scan of the American imagination.

We know precisely when the Great American Novel entered public culture as an idea with legs: Jan. 9, 1868, in an essay by a now-forgotten Connecticut novelist, J. W. DeForest. Writing just after the Civil War, DeForest argued that with the country now reunified, fiction writers should stop concentrating on its separate regions, as Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper had done, and take in the country’s expansive sweep and social tapestry so as to capture “the national soul.” Revealing his own Yankee provincialism, DeForest proposed that the closest approximation to date was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853).

Yet his essay was well timed. The novel was just coming into high fashion in the United States. The call for the Great American Novel was calculated to appeal to its audience’s acute sensitivity to the perceived gap between the country’s growing industrial might and its relative underperformance in the areas of art and culture.

All this explains the birth of the Great American Novel idea much better than its persistence, long after it became clear that American literature had nothing to apologize for. From 1930 through the 1990s, American writers garnered a disproportionate share of Nobel prizes, and U.S. literature became the dominant player in the English-speaking world. If anxiety about legitimizing our claim to culture were the whole story, by all rights the Great American Novel mantra should have long since disappeared.

One factor in its persistence: Even before the Revolution, the land that became the United States was widely seen in futuristic terms, as a project in the making, founded on the promises that would come to be enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness), yet struggling ever since to make good on them. The overwhelming majority of the dozen or so Great American Novel candidates taken most seriously, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, have shunned flag-waving patriotism and concentrated on the gap between promise and delivery. American audiences proverbially love feel-good plots and happy endings, but not when it comes to assessing Great American Novel candidates (or when the Academy picks contenders for the Oscar for “Best Picture,” for that matter).

The nation’s geography and social tapestry has become so much more complicated than when the original 13 rebellious British colonies uneasily allied in the 1770s that it’s become an increasingly formidable challenge to pin down one “American” experience. All this has guaranteed the Great American Novel will remain a future prospect rather than an achieved result.

There are a certain number of specific scripts that have seemed especially promising for generating the 20 or so leading Great American Novel candidates. One is immortalization through multiple retellings of a particular novel’s plotline, like the saga of the embattled heroine of The Scarlet Letter. Another is the family saga that grapples with racial and other social divisions, often turning on a plot of love or friendship across the divides. Still another targets assemblages of characters who dramatize in microcosm the promise and pitfalls of democracy.

Perhaps the single most popular and durable script of all follows the life struggle of a focal figure who strives to transform himself or herself from obscurity to prominence. Favored candidates, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, unfold as inquests into the promise and perils of the homegrown culture myth of “the self-made man.”

Of course, most Great American Novel scripts are distinctive but not unique to U.S. literature, and the scripts change over time. Before 1930, the protagonists of American up-from novels were overwhelmingly white and American-born; since then, a far greater percentage have been immigrants and people of color.

Whatever that future may be, the vast and expanding field of American fiction isn’t just a haphazard centrifuge. Great American Novel talk reflects the core logics underlying the often sharp, surprising twists and turns of its long history. And key to the impetus that drives the seemingly unkillable dream is the myth of the United States itself as a culture of aspiration, even and indeed especially when those aspirations seem balked or betrayed.

Lawrence Buell is a professor emeritus of American literature at Harvard University. His latest book is The Dream of the Great American Novel. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Philip K. Dick Knew How to Throw Shade

The 'Man in the High Castle' author really, really didn't like 'The Caine Mutiny'

The writer Philip K. Dick has returned to the public eye recently, as the pilot for a show based on his The Man in the High Castle — an alternate history in which the Axis triumphed in World War II — is streaming on Amazon.

When the Minority Report author and longtime Berkeley resident first made the pages of TIME Magazine, it was for a very different reason. In the fall of 1955, the magazine had put the writer Herman Wouk (of the mega-bestseller The Caine Mutiny) on the cover. As the story inside noted, Caine had won the author a Pulitzer Prize, extreme wealth and media attention, particularly to the surprisingly conservative take-aways of the story. “His chief significance is that he spearheads a mutiny against the literary stereotypes of rebellion—against three decades of U.S. fiction dominated by skeptical criticism, sexual emancipation, social protest and psychoanalytic sermonizing,” the story continued.

But not everyone was a fan. This letter to the editor appeared in the magazine as few weeks later:

Philip K. Dick letter cropped
TIMEFrom the Oct. 3, 1955, issue of

Dick did not appear in TIME again until his death in 1982, mere months before Blade Runner would propel his work into the mainstream, a trend that has continued for decades as his visions of tech-inflected dystopia grew more and more relevant.

As Richard Corliss noted of Dick in 2002, “his dark vision of the future is now.”

TIME viral

Read Roald Dahl’s Tear-Jerking Letter Urging Parents to Vaccinate Their Kids

Roald Dahl
Ronald Dumont—Getty Images British writer Roald Dahl (1916 - 1990) on Dec. 11, 1971

Dahl's daughter died from the measles as a child

As the recent measles outbreak in the U.S. grows, fueling a debate about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children, a 27-year-old letter written by beloved author Roald Dahl explaining his passionate stance on the issue has gone viral.

Dahl, who wrote classics including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, penned a letter in 1988, two years before he died, begging parents to not deny their children vaccinations “out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear.” Dahl explained:

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

Olivia, to whom James and the Giant Peach and The BFG were dedicated, died in 1962 — before there was a measles vaccine. More than two decades later, Dahl told British parents that their refusal to vaccinate their own children was “almost a crime” and called for mandatory immunization.

Read the full letter on Roald Dahl’s website here.

TIME Books

Release of Next ‘Game of Thrones’ Novel Will Not Happen in 2015

This image released by HBO shows Kit Harington in a scene from "Game of Thrones."
Helen Sloan—AP This image released by HBO shows Kit Harington in a scene from "Game of Thrones."

Fans will have to make do with a compilation of prequels rather than the next instalment in the saga

George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter, the long-awaited sixth novel in his ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘ saga that inspired the HBO series Game of Thrones, will not be published in 2015, his publisher told The Guardian on Friday.

Jane Johnson said HarperCollins would instead be publishing a new illustrated compilation of three official prequel novellas to the series, The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword and The Mystery Knight.

“The short novels have been previously published in separate anthologies but never put together before, and this will be a particularly beautiful edition,” Johnson told The Guardian. But she added that she had no information on a possible publication date for The Winds of Winter, which fans have been eagerly awaiting since Martin published the bestselling A Dance with Dragons in 2011.

In December Martin posted on his website to suppress speculation over the book’s release. He wrote: “I’ve said before, and I will say again, I don’t play games with news about the books. I know how many people are waiting, how long they have been waiting, how anxious they are. I am still working on Winds. When it’s done, I will announce it here…I don’t know how I can make it any clearer.”


Read next: Amanda Peet Thought Husband’s Show Game of Thrones Was a ‘Terrible Idea’

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

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A Creepy, Tragic Formula for Commercial Success

Edgar Allan Poe
Archive Photos / Getty Images Engraved portrait of author Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1830

Jan. 29, 1845: Edgar Allan Poe’s 'The Raven' is first published

The plot of “The Raven” is one of the most familiar in American literature: A bereaved scholar, mourning his lost love, is driven insane by grief (and a talking raven). The storyline must have been similarly familiar to Edgar Allan Poe, who seemed to be living a version of it, sans talking bird. What wasn’t familiar to the debt-plagued poet was the success that followed its publication.

After it appeared in New York’s The Evening Mirror on this day, Jan. 29, 170 years ago, “The Raven” became an overnight sensation, and so did Poe. He went from perpetual bankruptcy — according to a Jill Lepore profile of the poet that ran in The New Yorker in 2009, he lived on bread and molasses and was occasionally reduced to begging for change on the street — to a brief stint of relative financial security. Within a month, the poem was reprinted 10 more times. By the end of the year, Poe had published two new books, one a collection of short stories and the other of poems.

Poe, whom TIME called in 1930 “a morose genius who wrote horrible stories magnificently,” claimed to have written “The Raven” based on careful calculations to maximize its commercial success, Lepore reports. He concluded that gothic tales with spooky, supernatural elements sold best — so that’s what he wrote.

But it could also be argued that he wrote what he knew. As TIME’s 1934 review of two Poe biographies noted, “Tragedy visited him early and often, [and] did nothing to thicken an already abnormally thin skin.” He loved and lost an endless string of women, beginning with his mother, who died when he was 2. The love of his adolescent life — an older woman, the mother of a schoolmate — “died insane” when he was 15, according to TIME. An unsurprisingly macabre teen, Poe spent much of his time at her grave.

Unlike the narrator of “The Raven,” Poe managed to move on from this early tragedy, and was engaged to be married by the time he left home to attend the University of Virginia. When he returned, his fiancée was engaged to someone else. Finally, when he was 27, he married his 13-year-old cousin. By the time “The Raven” was published, his child bride was dying of tuberculosis.

Commercial ruse or not, it’s hard to read “The Raven” and not picture Poe, burdened by the accumulated grief of a lifetime of loss, flinging wide his chamber door and finding “darkness there and nothing more.”

Read TIME’s full 1934 review of two Poe biographies, here in the archives: Poor Soul

TIME Books

Sequel to Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo Trilogy Coming in August

Columbia Pictures Ronney Mara stars as Lisbeth Salander, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Get ready to reunite with Lisbeth Salander

A new novel in late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy will hit shelves in 35 countries this August, the book’s publisher announced Tuesday.

The unfinished manuscript left after Larsson’s death in 2004, That Which Does Not Kill, was completed by Swedish journalist and author David Lagercrantz, the Guardian reports. (While the English titles all took the The Girl Who _____ format, the original Swedish titles did not.)

The book will reunite readers with troubled computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, the titular character of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though the plot has so far been kept under wraps.

The entire series has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide and seen multiple film adaptations including one starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig. Larrson reportedly had several more novels planned when he died.

“What I wanted to make use of in the book was the vast mythology that Stieg Larsson left behind, the world he created,” said Lagercrantz, who told newspaper Dagens Nyheter that he worked closely to recreate Larsson’s writing style.

[The Guardian]

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