The Fifty-Year Sequel

Apparently, some fifty years after penning the one-off novel that would rumble the foundations of the literary world and haunt the nightmares of eighth-graders for years hence, Harper Lee has penned a sequel.

Maybe not a sequel, so much. According to the press releases I’ve seen, it’s a new story that features several of the same characters as To Kill A Mockingbird, not least of which are Scout and Atticus.

I’m of two minds about this.

On the one hand, it’s fantastic. Scout and her world are so beloved, not just by lovers of literature, but by people who in some cases have never read another book, that to see her gracing the pages of another story tickles me in places I maybe shouldn’t talk about.

On the other hand, I’m apprehensive. Already, the hype machine is surging to life, heralding the release of this new novel, Go Set a Watchman. It seems that Harper Lee wrote this novel before Mockingbird, which is interesting in its own right. Then, Mockingbird took flight and Watchman sat on a dusty shelf for all these years. Unfortunately, with Mockingbird being what it is — a staple of the American literary canon, an adored favorite of kids and adults alike, a harsh but hopeful look at so many issues of its time — Watchman now has to contend with some frankly unfair levels of expectation.

Imagine if J.K. Rowling vanished from the face of the earth for thirty years and then materialized in a cloud of smoke and thunder to bestow on us an untold story of Harry, Hermione, and Ron as adults — and, oh yeah, she actually wrote it when she was in high school and has just been hiding it from us all this time. Imagine the shockwave produced as fans broke the sound barrier to line up for their copies. Imagine the poor bedraggled fibers of the internet sparking and fizzing out as every e-reader in existence simultaneously tried to purchase this book. (Or, hell, we’ll probably be reading books through implants directly into the brain stem by that time, who knows.)

I’m really excited about the new novel, but I almost wish that it could have been released under a pseudonym (of course, then, who would buy it) or that it could have been released back when it was originally written, or just after Mockingbird (of course, then, it wouldn’t be nearly the big deal that it is). This book is going to be subject to so much scrutiny and analysis and comparison to the original that its pages may literally spontaneously combust from the magnification of so many critical lenses. And I think that’s kind of awesome, because literature is important to our world in that way. Things always mean things, and this book will mean a lot to a lot of people. But I also think that’s kind of sad, because every story deserves the chance to stand on its own and be appreciated for what it is, and this story will never have the chance to do that. Like a rhinoceros born into captivity, it will never know the free, mud-stomping whimsy of the wild, never feel the thunder of the plains under its feet. All its meals are pre-determined, and it will be bathed for all of its existence by caring and well-meaning caretakers dressed all in khaki while bemused families gawp at it from behind their strollers and fannypacks.