Western Pennsylvania literary community weighs in on Lee news
Professor and author Sharon Dilworth was in the middle of teaching class at Carnegie Mellon University on Feb.3 when the texts started to roll in by the dozens.
“It was like breaking news. I thought someone had died. About 90 people texted me, saying ‘Harper Lee is publishing again!’ ” said Dilworth, director of CMU’s creative writing program.
The announcement by Harper publishing that the rediscovered “Go Set a Watchman,” seen as a sequel to Lee’s landmark “To Kill a Mockingbird,” will be released July 14 proved to be breaking literary news.
Written in the mid-1950s prior to “Mockingbird” — Lee’s only published book — “Go Set a Watchman” features the character of Scout as an adult woman.
“It is really pretty incredible. This is big, big news. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is one of the most popular and beloved novels in American fiction,” said Lawrenceville poet Don Wentworth, a senior staff librarian at Carnegie Library’s main branch in Oakland.
“All the libraries and book stores will be geared up for this,” he said. “I am looking forward to it, especially from a writer of this quality, not to have anything from her for 50 years.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Wentworth said, “sort of sets the standard for American fiction, particularly as a coming-of-age story and a story of racial injustice.
“It is a pretty amazing story that touches everyone in some way,” he said.
Award-winning author Lori Jakiela of Trafford, who teaches in the writing programs at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and at Chatham University, says she does not know a single person who has not read “Mockingbird.”
“It was offered up to us in school, and it’s been a book we all carried with us,” Jakiela said. “And now, all these years later, all grown up, it will be wonderful to revisit Scout, to get to know her as an adult, and to once again read Harper Lee’s beautiful, and in our own still deeply trouble America, so necessary, work.
“Mockingbird,” which is still circulating heavily in libraries, was no less than a literary jewel, “one of the most brilliant books ever written and, more importantly, an American book,” said Miguel Llinas, a library assistant at Carnegie in Oakland.
“To learn that we will hear more of the story is significant,” he said. “It is like a literary reunion for all of us who read ‘Mockingbird.” I was completely incredulous to hear it was happening. Part of Harper Lee’s mystique and the fundamental role she holds in American literature is that she wrote one book, an absolute masterpiece and beloved by all.”
When Caitlin Bauer heard the news, she thought it was a hoax “because it sounded so far-fetched,” said the adult programming specialist at Community Library of Allegheny Valley, Natrona Heights.
“It’s very exciting to think that we are getting a sequel to a longstanding classic,’ said Bauer, who reminds that “Mockingbird” was the book chosen to kick off the “One Book, One Community” program in Allegheny County in 2014. Her library has multiple copies to meet the circulation demand.
“It is one of those rare books that you can return to over the course of your lifetime and find something new each time,” Bauer said. “It is a simple story at face value, but it can be read and understood on many levels. That’s what makes it a classic. It can be read and appreciated by school children, by their parents and by the community as a whole.”
“Mockingbird” remains “incredibly popular,” said Lesley Rains, owner and operator of Pittsburgh’s East End Book Exchange. “When I get copies in they always sell really fast,” she said. “ ‘Go Set a Watchman’ will be the book of the summer, possibly the year.”
Carnegie Mellon’s Dilworth said some people are nervous about the release, “because the first book was so perfect.”
“I think some people are going to say, ‘You’re going to ruin Scout; we don’t want to see her grow up.’ We’re not sure we want her to be any older,” she said. “I hope it is a best-seller, and I hope it won’t be a disappointment because it was such a quintessential first book.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org