Harper Lee’s reputation as a writer revolves around her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. For many decades, To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only published novel, until 2015 when a second novel with her name as the author was published with the title Go Set a Watchman. Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird which instantly got a welcome reception, Go Set a Watchman was received with mixed feelings and become a subject of controversies concerning its story and publication. Let’s take a closer look at the two known novels by Harper Lee.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
This novel is narrated by Jean Louise ”Scout” Finch, a girl who lives with her brother Jem and their widowed father Atticus who is a lawyer and a member of the state legislature. Scout and Jem although motherless, enjoy parental love and devotion from their father Atticus and feminine care from their black cook Calpurnia. The title is derived from Atticus’ admonition to his children in Chapter 10 of the novel that, ”it is a sin to kill a mockingbird”. The character Mrs. Maudie Atkinson, also in Chapter 10, then adds perspective to the admonition by telling them that the reason it is a sin to kill a mockingbird is that ”Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy…”.
One summer day, Scout and Jem meet a boy called Dill who came to spend summer with his relatives, and together, the three children explore their surroundings and imagination with childlike vitality. The children bask in the naive assurance that they live in a society where only goodness exists. But as they grow up, they begin to learn that evil exists in their society along with the good. First is the realization that a young man in their neighborhood called Boo Radley, who is never seen outside and is shrouded in imaginary depictions of monstrosity, was a normal young boy once but became a recluse as a result of his father’s cruelty against him.
Another lesson in their coming of age is the discovery that their society is plagued by the evil of racism and class discrimination. The children witness racism at play when a respectable, incapacitated black man called Tom Robinson is unfairly accused of raping a white young lady. The unfairness does not end with the false allegation as the all-white jury pronounce Tom Robinson guilty despite substantial evidence that exonerates him from the allegation. The children are saddened by this display of hatred and discrimination against blacks in their community and become more empathetic to oppressed people as they grow wiser.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and continues to make an impact in art and in socio-political issues around the world because of its prolific themes and compelling story.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015)
Go Set a Watchman is the only other published novel by Harper Lee. The title of the novel is derived from the words of Isaiah 21: 6, a passage in the bible that says: ”For thus hath the Lord said to me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth”. This bible passage was quoted by the character Mr. Stone in Chapter Seven of the novel.
The novel focuses on Jean Louise ”Scout” Finch’s view of her father Atticus Finch as the moral compass of her Southern hometown and her subsequent disillusionment from her idolization of him as she senses racist sentiments in him in at a time when the issue of integration of black people is at the fore of the social dynamics of the South.
Go Set a Watchman is related to To Kill a Mockingbird with a lot of characters featuring in both novels. Go Set a Watchman was at first marketed by its publishers as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. But, although the novel follows the later years of characters in Mockingbird, it was later found that Watchman was written by Harper Lee in 1957 as an earlier draft of Mockingbird. There are controversies around the publication of Go Set a Watchman centered on the belief that Harper Lee was an eighty-eight-year-old woman with ailing health at the time her consent was given for the publication of the script and that her old age and ill-health might have been unduly taken advantage of in obtaining her consent
The major differences between the two versions of the drafts are: Jem is alive and vibrant in Mockingbird but dead in Watchman; the rape allegation and trial of Tom Robinson is a major aspect of the plot in Mockingbird but a minor aside in Watchman; Tom Robinson’s verdict is guilty in Mockingbird but acquitted in Watchman; Atticus in Mockingbird is a morally upright man that fights for racial equality but is racially prejudiced in Watchman, and Calpurnia’s warmth and devotion to Scout have waxed cold.
The summary of Go Set a Watchman is that 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch who resides in the more liberal and progressive society of New York visits her southern small town to experience a heightened sensitivity to the racial bigotry she discovers in her father and her community. After a discussion with Atticus where she is horrified by his racist sentiments, Jean Louise decides to leave town in anger. But a passionate exchange with her uncle Jack makes her realize that she is very hurt because she had pinned her conscience on Atticus for so long that it hindered her from developing into her own person. Uncle Jack advises Jean Louise to break the idol she molded of her father and see him as a man capable of being wrong. Jean Louise apologizes to Atticus and as father and daughter reconcile, Jean Louise silently acknowledges that for the first time, she is seeing her father as just a man.
Go Set a Watchman has themes of race, parenthood, disillusionment, and individuality of conscience.
How many books did Harper Lee write?
Harper Lee has two published books written by her. The first is her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. The second is a related novel, Go Set a Watchman published in 2015.
Did Harper Lee get bullied?
Harper Lee was a tomboy who was stronger than most of her peers and so, she was not bullied as a child. Instead, she helped fend off bullies from her friend Truman Capote when they were children.
Who influenced Harper Lee?
Harper Lee loved reading from an early age and listed the Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as some of her favorite books as a child. She was also influenced by her high school teacher Gladys Watson who mentored her in literature.
Lee also mentioned her childhood friend Truman Capote as a writer she regarded as one of the finest in the country. And both Lee and Capote influenced each other’s writing.
What personal obstacles did Harper Lee face?
Harper Lee faced financial obstacles in her early attempt to become a writer. She had moved to New York City in 1949 with hopes of becoming a professional writer but had been forced to keep writing aside and work for many years due to financial obstacles.
But eventually, her friends gifted her the equivalent of a year’s worth of her wages in 1956 and she was able to quit her job and face writing fully.