Harper Lee’s surprise book has biblical title

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It’s a literary shocker. Harper Lee, long assumed the ultimate one-book author with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” will have a second novel published.

This week’s announcement made the front page of The New York Times, under the headline “After 55 years, a Sequel of Sorts from Harper Lee.”

What is not surprising, says Dawn Wiggins Hare Lee’s friend, fellow Monroeville, Alabama, resident and fellow United Methodist is that the book draws its title from the Old Testament.

“Nelle Harper is very well read in the Bible,” said Hare, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women. “Years ago, she autographed a copy of `To Kill a Mockingbird’ for me, and quoted Scripture in the personalized autograph.”

Lee’s forthcoming book is called “Go Set a Watchman,” a line from the King James Version of Isaiah 21:6.

“It’s a kind of general statement about being alert to the dangers of the enemies of Israel,” said John Holbert, an Old Testament scholar and retired professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

The novel doesn’t come out until July, so it is unclear how the title illuminates the story or themes. But Lee’s voracious reading has always included the Bible.

“The (biblical) title would not surprise me at all, because of her family’s faith and growing up in the church,” Hare said.

Lee, 88 and in an assisted living home, is a longtime member of First United Methodist Church in Monroeville. Her older sister Alice, a lawyer who died last year at age 103, held numerous lay offices in that church and served as a General Conference delegate.

Alice Lee’s will specified that her sister, known in Monroeville as “Nelle” and “Nelle Harper,” would get her books and other personal items, but the hometown church and other United Methodist causes were listed as financial beneficiaries.

`Humbled and amazed’

Harper Lee earned instant fame in 1960 when “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out. The novel, set in a small Alabama town during the Depression, is a lyrical coming-of-age story that also forthrightly deals with race prejudice.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” won a Pulitzer Prize and became a popular film with Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero who represents a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.

Lee’s book, which mentions Methodism and Methodism founder John Wesley in the first chapter, has sold some 40 million copies. It remains a fixture on high school and middle school reading lists. But a few years after its publication, Lee quit giving interviews, and over the decades, hope dwindled that she would produce another book.

The “new” novel was written in the mid-1950s, before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It occurs in the same fictional Alabama town, and concerns a visit home by the grownup Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the girl narrator of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

A statement from publisher HarperCollins quotes Lee as saying that she submitted “Go Set a Watchman” for publication but was persuaded by an editor to write another novel from the point of view of the young Scout. Lee never went back to the first book, but said her lawyer recently discovered a manuscript of it.

“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,” Lee said in the statement. “I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."

While the first reaction among Lee’s millions of fans was elation at the prospect of reading more fiction by her, questions have arisen as to whether Lee, given her age and infirmity, could really have made the decision to publish “Go Set a Watchman.” The New York Times story noted that HarperCollins dealt with Lee’s lawyer, not with Lee herself. 

Others who have met with Lee recently vouch for her ability to make such a decision, and the publisher released a statement Thursday quoting Lee as saying she was "happy as hell" to have the second book coming out.

Leaning forward

The Rev. Scott Smith, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ormond Beach, Florida, is still in the flush of excitement at the prospect of another Harper Lee book.

Smith first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the eighth grade, drawn to it because it was banned by his North Florida school.

He has since read it 20-25 times, he estimates, and now makes a point of reading it yearly.

He’s drawn from the book and shown clips of the film in sermons.

“I love the integrity of Atticus Finch,” Smith said.

That the author wrote another novel, set in the same town as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and dealing with some of the same characters, has the pastor leaning forward.

“I’m thrilled,” Smith said. “The day it comes out, I’ll get it, and I’ll probably read it that day.”

*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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