Gates: Authors of classic works deserve chance to branch out


Matt Gates, Columnist

I remember my high school English teacher describing “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a “one-hit wonder” because Harper Lee has only ever published one novel, despite the fact that it has become one of the most popular American literary works of all time. However, earlier this month, the reclusive author announced another novel of hers, “Go Set a Watchman,” will be released this summer.

Despite the controversy over the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” more than 50 years after its aging author completed the work with no intention to ever release it, at this point the new novel is set to hit the shelves this summer. But what should fans of “To Kill a Mockingbird” expect out of its “parent novel,” as Lee describes it?

The day HarperCollins Publishers announced it would release a new work by Lee, The New York Times wrote an article that included comments by Charles Shields, a biographer of Lee, voicing skepticism that Lee’s new book could “hold up against” her classic.

But is this a fair way to evaluate “Go Set A Watchman?” To an extent, perhaps. Although it is inevitable that readers will consider an author’s older works when evaluating her newer ones, these expectations can lead to a less enjoyable experience for the reader and an unfair evaluation of a work for the author.

Written prior to “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the mid-1950s, “Go Set a Watchman” reportedly also takes place in Maycomb, Alabama and includes many of the same characters, although it is set 20 years later during the 1950s. The new novel involves an adult Scout, the narrator of the previous novel, returning to her childhood home and addresses some of the same themes as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which focused on Southern society, racism and loss of innocence. However, the novel may also differ from its predecessor most obviously in that it will be narrated through the voice of an adult rather than a child, one of the most distinctive aspects of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Reading “Go Set a Watchman” with “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the front of one’s mind might lead readers to get less out of the new novel. Had the novels been published in the opposite order, readers today might be lamenting that “To Kill a Mockingbird” might not live up to its predecessor.

The “Harry Potter” series, while in a very different category of literature, comes to mind as a recent example of the same problem. The later novels in the series upset parents who were put off by the more adult content as J.K. Rowling’s world grew darker and her protagonists grew up. Moreover, Rowling’s attempt to begin a career writing mystery novels for adult readers left her new novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” to be evaluated according to the author’s enormous success in the realm of children’s literature despite her new book’s very different genre.

It is important to allow authors the chance not to become trapped in the voices or even the genres in which they began writing. Amazon touts “Go Set a Watchman” as an “instant classic.” Whether this proves true or not, it deserves the chance to become a classic of its own, rather than merely out of its relationship to Lee’s previous work.

Matt Gates is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].