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Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” Her First or Second Novel?

Harper leeEveryone in the reading world right now seems to be obsessed with Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And the question of why did she write only one book?

A Southern novelist to the core, the same question can be applied to that other great Southern writer of one,  only one highly successful novel,Margaret Mitchell. And that novel, of course, was “Gone with the Wind.”

I never thought it was a particularly confusing question. The international acclaim, critically and monetarily would be hard to top. They said what they had to say, and that was that. Same question as why did Greta Garbo retire so early? She wanted to.

But now another NEW book by Harper Lee has purportedly been discovered and will now be published in July. The suspense is mounting. Is it any good? Will it be the caliber of “To Kill A Mockingbird”?

How can it be?

It’s an impossible mountain to climb, and the fact that it was written a long time ago, maybe a VERY long time ago makes me feel that Harper Lee, being the wise woman that she was/is, just didn’t want it to be seen or read.

This may and I emphasize MAY have been the first book she wrote BEFORE “To Kill a Mockingbird” made her a literary sensation.

The book that she shopped around to publishers when she was an unknown first novelist in New York struggling to make her name. And it was rejected by everyone. I know the feeling.

And THEN she wrote “Mockingbird” plainly and simply and it, like “Gone With the Wind” really did not need a follow-up.

“Go Set a Watchman” – What an awkward, collegiate writing class title! Is probably not a patch on “Mockingbird.”

I think this whole thing is a literary stunt of the first water. Maybe she needs the money in her twilight years. Maybe, it’s been suggested, she doesn’t really know, cognitively, what really is going on with her unheard of, silent second book. Or was it her first surpressed one?

We’ll find out very soon. One thing’s for sure. It will be an international best seller. Interest in it is very, very high. But will it be any good? Or will it be very bad? That remains to be seen.

I, for one, can’t wait. And “Hey, Boo!” is a great documentary on Lee and is coming up soon on PBS. Don’t miss it.

“Hey, Boo!” intriguing new doc on the mysterious Harper Lee

I really was quite enchanted with the lovely, new documentary film “Hey, Boo!” about the reclusive Southern authoress Harper Lee. She wrote the  classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, won the Pulitzer Prize, then never wrote anything again and disappeared from sight. This very well done doc by Emmy-winning documentarian Mary McDonagh Murphy explains why.

I had no clear picture of this elusive author, except what one could glean from, of all things, the TWO films about Truman Capote that came out one right after the other in a two year period. “Capote” won Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, and got Catherine Keener a supporting actress nomination. It was her second, and she was playing a lesbian in both films, “Capote” and “Being John Malkovich.” 

Sandra Bullock, in her best performance ever, and pre-“The Blind Side”, played an even butcher Harper Lee in the 2nd (and I thought superior) Capote film, “Infamous.” These two films made sure that Truman Capote was back in the public’s eye, even though he’s been dead for a number of years…But no Oscars or nominations were coming the way of “Infamous.” It sucks to be second in this kind of close filmic race. But Truman would’ve loved all this posthumous attention. Harper Lee, no.

However, there Harper Lee was depicted on screen in two movies, helping, traveling and being the all around best pal to Truman Capote, as he traveled to Kansas  by train to investigate the horrific deaths of the Clutter family. Massacred en masse by two gay drifters, one of whom Capote fell madly in love with Perry Smith, and who he pretty much immortalized in his greatest work “In Cold Blood.” And Smith is depicted in all THREE films.

Harper Lee doesn’t appear in “In Cold Blood.” And Capote did not win a Pulitzer Prize, fairly or un-fairly, for his greatest work. And he never forgave his former best friend since childhood, Harper Lee, for this. She had a Pulitzer. He didn’t. And this revelation, among many others, sort of forms the climax of “Hey, Boo!”

“Hey, Boo!” performs the magic trick/tap dance of not having the central character Harper Lee anywhere in it. Yet it still remains compelling. No mean feat. Kudos to filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murpphy who is also the author of the New York Times Best-Seller “Scout, Atticus & Boo: Fifty Years of to Kill a Mockingbird.” This film is so complete, Oprah Winfrey is even in it, telling how much this small, succinct book impacted her young life. To this day, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still sells a million copies a year!

We see pictures of her, and hear her heavily Southern-inflected voice on a radio broadcast from the early ’60s, but that’s about it.

Nell Harper Lee, for that is her full name, and all her friends who are interviewed in the movie call her, Nell, was Capote’s next door neighbor in the small Southern town of Munroeville, Alabama. That these two children would both become considered America’s great writers of that time is a fateful historic co-incidence.

And the film reveals many things we did not know about Nell. She was, when she came to New York in the ’50s an airline reservation ticket counter clerk for a quite a long time before some well-meaning friends, who are interviewed extensively in the movie, generously gave her money to take a year off to write “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And it wasn’t a breeze doing so for Nell, even with this generous support.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was rejected by many publishers before Nell Harper hit pay dirt and got a sympathetic editor…and the rest as they say is history.

She always reminded me more than a bit of Margaret Mitchell, that other Southern female writer, who wrote one great, best-selling novel, “Gone With the Wind” then was never heard from again, literaray-il-ly speaking.

And “Hey, Boo!” lays out why. Suddenly famous, then also suddenly weary of all the non-stop press attention she was getting, she just says simply to someone, “I have given enough. I don’t want to give any more.”

And I guess, she, being a woman of carefully chosen words, meant was she said.

In this Internet age, one wonders if one book, and a novel at that, could ever make such a stir these days. But in its’ day “To Kill a Mockingbird” coupled with the great Black and White film that won three Oscars, one for Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer, patterned to a T on Harper Lee’s own father, and one for Horton Foote’s screenplay and one for Haskell Wexler’s cinematography.

It’s also a question if the book without the film’s monumental impact would have achieved the legendary, classic status both the novel and the film enjoy to this day.

But “To Kill a Mockingbird” endures and endures, and this great, thought-provoking documentary explains why.

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