Harper Lee is famous as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which since it appeared in 1960 has sold over 40 million copies and been voted, in a survey by Library Journal, the most influential novel of the 20th century. It was the first novel Lee published, but it wasn’t the first one she wrote. That was Go Set a Watchman, which she wrote in the mid-1950s in a cold-water flat in New York City while working as an airline reservationist. At the time, her editor suggested that she shelve it and write about the childhood of the book’s hero, Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout.
She did. To Kill a Mockingbird was the result. Lee, and for that matter her editor, would probably have been bemused by what lay in store for Go Set a Watchman, if they’d known: it’s finally appearing in print this summer, 55 years after its prequel, and has become the most preordered book in its publisher’s history.
The actual contents of the book have been kept deliberately secret, but we do know that it’s about Scout as an adult visiting her father Atticus and dealing with “issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.” It’s the answer to a question we never thought would get answered: What ever happened to that precocious, inquisitive child, Scout Finch?
But maybe the more important question is, What can a rejected manuscript from the 1950s have to say about the world in 2015? A lot, probably. If To Kill a Mockingbird was a book about judgment, and the importance of not rushing to it, then not much has changed: Go Set a Watchman has already been reviewed 192 times on Goodreads, even though no one has actually read it. But more to the point, Go Set a Watchman is being published in a country where the bigotry and racial violence Lee wrote about in Mockingbird have still not been rooted out. Not even close. We need Finches in 2015 as much as we ever did.
This appears in the July 06, 2015 issue of TIME.
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