Lee’s ‘Watchmen’ unlikely to change legacies

For hours after I learned Harper Lee — author of the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” — is publishing a second book, I struggled with a mix of excitement and pessimism.

But I finally settled on a simple truth: Lee’s new book, “Go Set a Watchmen,” will do little to affect the legacy of Harper Lee or her or the beloved “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Last week, publisher HarperCollins announced that Lee’s long lost “Go Set a Watchmen” will be published July 14 after being rediscovered last fall.

Despite the acclaim of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Mockingbird,” it remained Lee’s only book for more than 50 years. That, and Lee’s often reclusive ways, only served to add to the allure of what remains one America’s most beloved novels, one read for decades by public school students. She wrote the lone, wildly successful book and since has lived quietly between New York and Monroeville, Alabama, often drawing comparisons to her famous and reclusive character Arthur “Boo” Radley.

The buzz around news of “Watchmen” is a lesson in extremes, not to mention the public’s starved appetite for more. Adding to the buzz is the fact that Lee’s forthcoming book is a sequel to “Mockingbird.” According to reports, she started “Watchmen” first and finished it in the 1950s. The book follows “Mockingbird” narrator Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as an adult returning home to Alabama to her father, Atticus Finch.

The buzz has been loud — but not all good. Oprah Winfrey issued a pleased statement, according to the Associated Press, saying she “couldn’t be happier if my name was Scout.” The Associated Press also reported that biographer Charles J. Shields cautioned that Lee was a “beginning author” when she wrote “Watchman.”

A slew of online bloggers and pundits began debating whether publishers and confidants are taking advantage of the 88-year-old Lee, who currently lives in Monroeville. Since a stroke in 2007, the author has reportedly been forgetful and in declining health. Fueling the skeptics’ ire is that fact that Lee’s sister Alice Lee — a lawyer hailed as Lee’s buffer to fame — recently passed away. (Their father, A.C. Lee, was the inspiration for Atticus Finch, and Alice took over his practice).

However, the public has already spoken. “Watchmen” reached the top 10 on www.barnesandnoble.com a mere hours after news of its release thanks to a flood of preorders.

I’ll admit I pondered preordering “Watchmen” — and still might — but I’m still battling my blend of elation and skepticism.

Like many people, “Mockingbird” is the first book I remember reading that deeply affected me. As a story about children, “Mockingbird” is a more accessible classic than the likes of “Moby Dick” or “The Scarlet Letter.” But it’s a novel all ages can appreciate. Since my first reading in my youth, I’ve read “Mockingbird” again as a teenager and as an adult. It lost little with subsequent readings, even when I remembered the ending. It’s still a poignant, moving book.

When something we hold dear is affected, people will react. But beware: Most of the discussion now is overreaction.

Those who fear people are taking advantage of the (reportedly) declining Lee are missing one key point: Once “Watchmen” was rediscovered, it was only a matter of time before it was published, whether Lee consented or not. Not to sound morbid, but countless lost or incomplete books written by famous authors are frequently published — often posthumously. Similarly, the words of caution for excited fans flocking to preorder the book are simple: Great books rarely are lost for more than 50 years.

In a world where countless books turn into series, I was content with “Mockingbird” standing on its own. It added a certain mystery and uniqueness. There’s something romantic and mysterious about the reclusive author releasing one classic and disappearing from public life. Just think of all the movie characters based on this ideal.

But my greatest fear, at least initially, is what “Watchmen” will mean for characters like Atticus, long hailed a symbol for morals and one of the most beloved characters in literature. Publisher HarperCollins’ announcement said he will appear in the book: “She [Scout] is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.”

My first reaction to reaching that: Great, she turned Atticus into a crotchety old man. In another breath, I wondered if the world needs more lessons from the moral Atticus Finch in light of recent racial tensions.

Regardless if “Watchmen” is good or bad, or if the beloved characters live up to our idealized memories, the new book will do little to change how many people feel about “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Watchmen” will either balloon Lee’s already strong legacy, or it will be dismissed as something meant to remain unpublished. It won’t undo more than 50 years of adoration.

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