Readers have waited for those words almost my entire life. Lee's first novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," came out in 1960 as the nation was rising into the Civil Rights era. Her story of a young girl named Scout, her wise father, Atticus, and the racially charged events in fictitious Maycomb, Alabama, resonated widely. A hit movie followed, and over the decades, 30 million copies of the book sold worldwide.
The new book will continue the story of Scout "some 20 years later" according to a release from the HarperCollins. Oddly, this sequel was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird." A quote from Lee on the publisher's website says, "In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called 'Go Set a Watchman.' It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort.
"My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told."
The manuscript for "Go Set a Watchman," she says, was unexpectedly rediscovered and "after much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."
Hidden from prying eyes
She is not alone in her amazement.
Shortly after "To Kill a Mockingbird" rose to fame, the author took flight from the public eye. Why? No one really knew.
Some speculated that bad feelings had boiled up over rumors that her longtime friend, Truman Capote, had played a strong role in crafting the story. Others wondered whether fame was just too much to bear. But everyone waited for her next novel. And waited. And waited. And when it did not come after years, then decades, most assumed it never would.
Then they assumed worse.
When I graduated from high school in 1978, I lived in that house with my parents not far from Lee's home in Monroeville, Alabama. I could have hopped into my Chevy Biscayne, driven an hour and knocked on her door. But like a great many other Americans, I had no idea she was alive.
My mother didn't either, although she is almost the same age as Lee, and her own childhood down a red dirt road could have been a missing chapter in the famous novel. My mother even recalls her older brother, James, telling her back when Lee's story was published that "a woman from Monroeville wrote a book," as if he were mentioning a school classmate.
'Can we share a glass of iced tea?'
Lee, who is now 88, has often been described as reclusive. That is not the right word. She has emerged now and then to accept awards.
For many years, she shuttled between a home in New York City and Monroeville, keeping an active and lively circle of family and friends. She just didn't speak to the press. She didn't "do" public appearances much. And, by all accounts, she did not want to talk about her famous book. She essentially told all who asked that the work spoke for itself.
What's more, her circle helped guard her privacy. Charles Shields wrote a compelling, unauthorized biography called "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee," and he noted the many ways in which people close to her tried to shoo him off the subject.
Nonetheless, I thought repeatedly over the years that I should try to score the impossible interview. A close friend had a connection to the arts community in Monroeville; maybe he could open a line of communication. Perhaps a series of nice letters would do the trick. Or maybe I should just wander up as Harper Lee tended her flowers, and say "Hi, my family's home is over near Dozier. I went to school at Opp. Can we share a glass of iced tea?"
I never did.
I knew she wanted to be left alone, and the Southern manners with which I'd been raised -- the same she grew up with -- kept me away. And unless she suddenly announces a return to public life with this new novel, out of respect I will continue to keep my distance.
And I suspect I will read this new novel at arm's length, too. Not merely because my own vision has faded a bit through all the waiting, but also because she has surely grown larger in my imagination than any human can actually be. Her talent has been magnified in the public eye by years of unbroken focus on a single, spectacular piece of writing. Follow-ups to greatness so rarely work out as we hope.
So, like Boo Radley, I am eager to peek into Scout's world again, but I will do so from behind a half-pulled curtain, timidly, for fear of what I might see -- and for fear of scaring the mockingbird off once more.