Harper Lee’s Second Novel Fuels Debate

15 July, 2015

American writer Harper Lee's first -- and until now, only -- book, "To Kill a Mockingbird," is one of America's best-loved novels. The 1960 publication explores racism and injustice in the American South. It was an instant best-seller. Two years later it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Readers around the world have bought 40 million copies of the book since its release. "To Kill a Mockingbird" also inspired an Oscar-winning movie of the same name.

On Tuesday, Harper Lee's second book "Go Set a Watchman," was released for sale, 55 years after the first. Lee had announced in February that she would publish a sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The new novel became the most pre-ordered book on Amazon.com since the final book in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series.

Employees unbox
Employees unbox "Go Set A Watchman" at Ol' Curiosities & Book Shoppe in Monroeville, Alabama July 14, 2015.

Lee wrote "Watchman" in 1957, before she wrote "Mockingbird." Her editor at the time encouraged her to rewrite "Watchman" from the point of view of a child. She agreed. That effort became "To Kill a Mockingbird."

But so far, Ms. Lee's second novel has received mixed reviews. It has also led to debate. Some observers are questioning how "Go Set a Watchman" will affect Ms. Lee's legacy, as well as the legacy of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The Wall Street Journal published a preview of the book's first chapter last Friday. The newspaper described the novel as a "distressing book." The Los Angeles Times called it "an apprentice effort."

And a U.S. public radio critic said it was "kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece."

"To Kill a Mockingbird" takes place in the 1930s in a small town in the southern state of Alabama. Six-year-old Scout Finch narrates the story. Her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lee wrote the character of Atticus as a strong believer in justice. He bravely faces, and fights, deep prejudice and hate among the people in his town.

The story of "Go Set a Watchman," is set about 20 years after the ending of the first book. An adult Scout returns from New York to visit her father in Alabama.

Some readers are protesting the character of Atticus as he is written in "Go Set a Watchman." They say he is a racist. And, they say that that is unacceptable.

In a letter to The New York Times, one man wrote, "As a native of Alabama, I had held up Atticus in my own mind as a redemptive figure, a symbol of hope, a hero who was brave enough to fight for what is right despite the poisonous and dangerous pools of racism long associated with whites in the Deep South."

Others consider this latest version of Atticus good for today's America.

Harper Lee biographer Charles Shields spoke to the New York Times about the book. He said this Atticus could help support a national discussion about racism. He said, "It turns out that Atticus is no saint, as none of us are, but a man with prejudices."

So far, any negative press has not slowed sales of Harper Lee's work. The number one and two spots on Amazon's best-seller list are filled by "Go Set a Watchman" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I'm Jim Tedder.

Ashley Thompson wrote this article for Learning English with materials from VOA News, Reuters and The New York Times. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

novel n. a long written story usually about imaginary characters and events

encourage v. to tell or advise (someone) to do something

legacy n. something that happened in the past

apprenticen. a person who learns a job or skill (for a fixed time period) by working for someone who is very good at that job or skill

narrate v. to tell (a story)

biographern. a person who writes the story of a real person's life

negative adj. harmful or bad; not wanted