Sunday, April 26, 2015

To Kill a Masterpiece?

Are we killing more than a Mockingbird? How a sequel to an American classic may damage the original's legacy. ♦
To Kill a Mockingbird has been seared and molded onto the young minds of America since its debut in 1962, including mine. Not only is it a representation of classic American literature but also a touchstone of the typical high school English experience  across the nation. To most, To Kill a Mockingbird is a significant depiction of adolescence in the face of evil, raising questions of morality, family, and above all basic humanity. It is one of the few stories that almost every reader is able to find some sort of personal connection with, some sense of themselves between the lines and within the pages of Harper Lee’s enduring masterpiece. In short, To Kill a Mockingbird has become a beloved celebration of fantastic writing, plot, and character to readers everywhere.
     My mom has been a reading specialist in elementary schools ever since I can remember. When I was a kid, I would go to visit  her classroom after school and help her organize her reading books, picture books, and magnetic letters. Her co-workers would ask me what books we were reading each time I visited as I sifted through the brightly colored, plastic upper case and lowercase A, B, and Cs.
     “The Scarlet Letter,” I said frowning.
     “The Lord of the Flies,” I said skeptically.
     “The Great Gatsby,” I said smiling.
    But when it came time to say To Kill a Mockingbird, it wasn’t me who would have the emotional reaction, but the older teachers. They would look at me and smile, telling me about it being their favorite book, how amazing it was, how much it meant to them. They said it in a way that they wished they were back in high school reading or teaching the novel, rather than spelling out words on dry erase boards to children who had many years before they got the opportunity to read the influential story.
      In light of recent developments, the new production of a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird by aging author Harper Lee, who has supposedly held onto her manuscript for quite some time until its recent discovery, has many avid and dedicated readers questioning whether or not this story should be published, due in no small part to the timelessness of the original novel. Scheduled to be published by HarperCollins, Go Set a Watchman would no doubt be a money-making machine due to the reputation that precedes it with To Kill a Mockingbird. But with the addition of a new storyline, and older characters, there's a very real fear that the book could not possibly be as moving as its predecessor. Upon first hearing about this, my mind immediately wandered to movie sequels that are produced in an attempt to ‘milk’ the success of the originals, all for the generation of cash flow. While I will admit to being guilty of taking in the sequels of movies I enjoyed, I ultimately always leave the sequel feeling that 1) it was ghastly, 2) whoever made the decision to continue the series was rather foolish, and 3) not only was it a poor production, but the fact that it was such a failure reflects on how I ultimately view the first film (or book).
      It's possible that Harper Lee's sequel could be wildly successful, and maybe Lee has climbed the Mountain of Impossibility and crafted a second novel as beautiful as the first. (The fact that Lee actually wrote Go Set a Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird, and then shelved the book when Lee's editor suggested a reworking of the idea, still doesn't tell us much about what this alternate take might look like.) Maybe Scout will be as charmingly naïve yet intelligent in her older years as she was as a child. Maybe this is just wishful thinking.
     Some have even raised questions about Harper Lee’s age and mental capacity, whether it was truly she making the decision to publish the manuscript. For the most part Lee herself has been silent, save for a statement in which she said she was "happy as hell" to have the book coming out, though the specter persists that the decision to publish may have more to do with the idea that the book could be a goldmine, no matter its quality. Certainly the publisher would benefit from this book's emergence, and Lee herself will see a big payday. Everyone would benefit . . . except for Lee’s reputation and that of To Kill a Mockingbird.
     What would you rather have: one fantastically monumental book, or two books, one of which could take away from the craft of the first? To my mind, as a devotee of To Kill a Mockingbird, I feel that the second book should stay invisible. By placing a second storyline into this world, the first plot could fall apart, and this staple of American literature could fall victim to typical American corporate values of extending a franchise to the point where they kill it. The world didn’t need a second and third (and fourth and fifth) Spider-Man, yet we got them. Twilight should have stopped while it was way ahead. Oryx and Crake broke our hearts and instilled curiosity in our minds, and then crumbled in our hands as we read the next installments. I now offer this final sentiment: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • About the Author
    Mary Williams is a Junior Creative Writing major at Miami University.  President of Women Against Violence and Sexual Assault, she enjoys raising awareness when she isn't writing for fun, classes or The Odyssey Magazine

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