When word hit Tuesday that Harper Lee was releasing a second book, “Go Set A Watchman,” a sequel to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the Internet went wild. Scout Finch! Atticus! Jem! We’d be seeing them again. Now that the Twitter jokes and hashtags have died down, though, do we still think this is a good idea?
First, some background: “Go Set A Watchman” is the book Lee wrote first, decades ago, about a grown-up Scout, before her editor at Lippincott told her to write about Scout as a young girl instead, and it has been in a vault “or something” since then. Possibly wrapped in a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
For years, Lee has been, like J.D. Salinger, one of those writers who is followed around by the phrase “famously reclusive” like a loyal dog, wherever she goes (or doesn’t). So why the sudden change?
If you just list the facts we do know about this, they suggest cause for concern.
—Jezebel notes that Alice Lee, Harper’s older sister, who spent decades as the custodian of her sister’s legacy, passed away last year at the age of 103.
–Harper Lee, 88, who remains in a nursing home where she is, according to her editor at HarperCollins, who last spoke to her years ago, “very difficult to talk to,” now spontaneously announces that she wants to publish a book she has kept in a vault for nearly 60 years.
–The initial print run is 2 million copies.
But leave aside the question of exploitation. Do we want a sequel to “To Kill A Mockingbird”?
Frankly, I don’t.
And this has nothing to do with Jar Jar. Not everything has to do with Jar Jar.
With some books, children’s books especially, sequels are delightful. You want as many sequels as possible, because you want the characters to grow up with you, or slightly in advance of you, to tell you what it will be like. Tell me what Anne of Green Gables is doing now. Yes, absolutely, I want to follow Hermione through all seven years at Hogwarts. I will move from house to house and state to state with Laura Ingalls Wilder as long as she will have me. That’s the point: watching these characters grow up, so you can learn the ropes yourself. That’s why so many of these young-adult (that’s not quite the word) sagas come in series and would feel incomplete in any other manifestation. The story wants to go on. The characters want to keep growing.
I submit that this is not the case with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Scout Finch, its narrator, has already done her meaningful growing up by the time the book ends. Yes, it’s a story about a young girl, but refracted through the lens of her grown-up eyes. It’s a story on its own, full, complete: a loss of innocence, on the one hand, growing up on the other hand. We all have essays that we wrote in high school on similar themes.
And some books should not have sequels.
If someone came in and said, “Hey, we just unearthed ‘Moby Dick 2: Return To The Sea,'” I would not be instantly delighted. I would not go pounding down the sidewalk to my nearest retailer of books and order myself a copy. I would be a little worried, frankly.
I do not read “Lord of the Flies 2: The Quickening.” What the boys do with themselves when they get off the island does not concern me. That was the story, right there. What else could there be?
There are some stories where continuing to follow the characters around afterward feels almost voyeuristic. Why are you still here? the characters could justly ask. The story is over. Now I am just going about my life as best I can. There is nothing here for you to see.
Another book by Harper Lee? Great. Superb. Sign me up. But a (pre-written) sequel to “To Kill A Mockingbird”? Did it need one? Can’t we leave them there?
Maybe this is because I have grown up, myself, since reading it, and noticed how precious a good ending is. Life certainly is stingy with them. Nothing ends quite the way you want it to, which is why whenever an elderly couple dies holding hands in their sleep at 94, it shows up in your Facebook newsfeed. It makes news precisely because it is so rare.
Not to say that the book ends happily. Far from it — it is bittersweet, at best. But it ends well. That is one advantage books have over life: They don’t stop short before the story’s fully told, but they don’t keep going after, either. When you reach the last page, you know that the story is over. Those who are safe will remain safe. Those who have perished are lost to you for good. This is why it is so devastating when characters die — because otherwise they possess a really wondrous kind of immortality, there and waiting exactly as you remember them every time you open the book, and you can read all the way through, secure in the knowledge that they will still be safe, that at the end Atticus will still be there watching Jem sleep.
Some people ruin their own stories. Not just in life, where you can pull the classic Batman move of dying a hero or living long enough to see yourself become the villain. But this goes for storytellers, too. Sometimes your stories have more life than you give them credit for, and trying to mold them to your authorial will does a kind of violence to them. (All right, look at Jar Jar.) One of the most effective ways to ruin a story is to keep it going after it should have ended. Life has to continue. Books don’t. That is one advantage books have.
We would know better than to keep going if this were a fable or a fairy tale. Put a sequel on a happily ever after, and it bursts. But this is a story about people, about learning the world is uglier than you thought but still better than you hoped in some ways, too. What more do we want to happen to them? Anything more might be less true. These characters are people, to us, as Alice Petry noted “Atticus has become something of a folk hero in legal circles and is treated almost as if he were an actual person.” But unlike actual people they are not subject to the revisions of time. We don’t have to watch them become worse or grow old or get married to the wrong people. They stop where the book ends. If they made it there, they’re safe forever.
I am not saying that where “To Kill A Mockingbird” ends is the only possible place it might have ended, or that the ending’s perfect. But that is where I wish we could leave it. “[Atticus] would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” That is where I would like to keep him, and all of them — safe, contained within the covers of a book.