Literary News: Harper Lee’s Secret Manuscript

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard the news that the ever-reclusive Harper Lee is set to publish a second novel entitled Go Set a Watchman. It’s a thrilling announcement for the literary community, with both Facebook and Twitter thrumming with the announcement.

So far, though, I’ve seen little comment on the secret history of Lee’s second novel, which The New York Times article intimates: Lee wasn’t sure that the manuscript had even survived. Further, as the article claims, she “was asked by an editor to rework the novel [i.e., Go Set a Watchman] from Scout’s perspective,” which means that Lee’s second novel is an important step in understanding the process behind To Kill a Mockingbird.

I don’t put too much stock in authorial intent; once the book leaves the author’s hands, it’s up to a public constituted of readers and critics to receive and interpret the text. Still, this begs the question of what Go Set a Watchman conveys that may be absent from To Kill a Mockingbird. The answer to this question lies in two distinct stories: firstly, the actual narrative of Lee’s novels; secondly, the story of how this new manuscript was produced, lost, and rediscovered. How will the novel (as both a story and an example of the writing-editing-publishing process) affect the story of twentieth-century American lit?

It’s this question that I find most compelling: the lost manuscript finding a second life and revising literary history. Usually, these secret or alternative manuscripts bring up debates about the author’s intentions versus the editor’s intentions; two examples I have in mind are the University of Tennessee’s “restoration of the author’s text edition” of James Agee’s Death in the Family and the debacle over Gordon Lish’s heavy-handed editing of Raymond Carver’s short stories. Focusing on intent misses the point. I don’t think the best questions here are “What did Harper Lee intend to do first?” and “What did her editors want, instead?” The better question is what this alternate version will reveal about a certain moment in American (and American literary) history.

Hey, I’m always happy to add things to my reading list.


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