Novels spark and national dialogue

To Kill a Mockingbird, Lynn Sloan's copy, introduction by Gregory Peck
To Kill a Mockingbird, my copy, introduction by Gregory Peck

The maelstrom around the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set the Watchman (2015), a novel set in a time after that in her To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), has proven how essential books are. Go Set the Watchman was published fifty-five years after Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and became one of the most revered books in America. The book and the movie made from it, starring Gregory Peck as the honorable Atticus Finch, became a phenomenon. Mockingbird appeared on required reading lists, communities read it together. Readers identified with Scout or Jem or Atticus, or with life at that time in small town America. Go Set the Watchmen, which takes place years later, portrays a very different Atticus, an old, bitter racist. Today’s sages are weighing in. What do these two books reveal about race in America? Which book is more honest? Was it a mistake to publish Go Set? Was Harper Lee’s editor at Lippincott, the publisher of Mockingbird, a vital creative force? Was Lee manipulated into publishing a second-rate novel? What greedy forces are behind the publication of a novel that is sure to undermine the aura of the first book? That two novels have created so much debate and conversation is exciting. In a time when we are deluged with information from sources that are quickly eclipsed by other sources, it is heartening to see two novels prove how central books can be to our cultural life.