If Harper Lee’s just-released “Go Set a Watchman” fails to match the magic of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” then we can root for a novelization of how the book came to be in the first place.

Rarely is a literary release’s backstory so filled with intrigue, and the tale may get even murkier given the book’s content. “Go Set a Watchman” marks the second full-length novel written by the reclusive Lee, whose “Mockingbird” stands as one of the country’s most beloved texts.

That is more than enough to whet our literary appetites for the book, which imagines the main characters from “Mockingbird” 20 years later. Fans may never have had the chance to read “Watchman” if not for a chance discovery.

We were told earlier this year that Lee’s lawyer stumbled upon the finished “Watchman” draft in 2014 while inspecting an old typescript of “Mockingbird.” HarperCollins quickly set the book’s publishing plans in motion. More recently, the New York Times reported the manuscript in question may have been found as early as 2011, a revelation disputed by some parties in question.

Fans may never have had the chance to read “Watchman” if not for a chance discovery.

Which tale is true? And why didn’t Lee, who is in poor health following a 2007 stroke, want the story released decades earlier? Could it be fear of the novel itself? In “Watchman,” it’s rather shocking to learn that a 72-year-old Atticus Finch has attended Ku Klux Klan meetings and decries desegregation.

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” he says at one point. How could literature’s standard bearer for racial healing utter such divisive comments?

Lee wrote “Watchman” prior to “Mockingbird,” but the novel was initially rejected. Her follow-up became a sensation and, until recently, stood as her only published novel.

There’s certainly little intrigue as to why we’re curious about “Watchman,” which, according to HarperCollins, already has the most pre-orders in the company’s history and is the most pre-ordered print book on Amazon since the last Harry Potter novel. “Mockingbird” is part of our cultural fabric, a coming-of-age yarn touching on racism, the law and the kind of decency that gave citizens a reason to be optimistic even during the darkest times. It’s an essential part of many school curricula. Its keen observations of the South, racism and childhood make it a timeless tale for all ages.LZ-info-thumb_Watchman (9935)

It certainly helped that the film adaptation, which hit theaters in 1962, captured the book’s quiet dignity thanks to an Oscar-winning turn by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

Can “Watchman” measure up to Lee’s signature achievement? She’s not the only artist forced to compete against his or her earlier efforts. Consider musician Brian Wilson’s long-delayed “Smile,” a concept album the musician finally released in 2004 after a 38-year delay. Fate smiled upon Wilson’s delayed opus. The disc secured glowing reviews from most critical quarters. It also earned Wilson a Grammy Award.

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Will Lee snare similar kudos for “Watchman”? Or will the drama surrounding its release prove more compelling than getting to know Scout and Atticus all over again?

The pre-released first chapter of the book is filled with the kind of nuanced Southern context that made “Mockingbird” so authentic, so plainspoken. Scout is all grown up, and she’s dealing with romance and heartache. The latter comes from an ailing Atticus Finch, whose stubbornness can’t hide his battle with arthritis.

We’re in Lee’s imagination once more, a place many have longed to revisit for some time.

Lee and ‘Mockingbird’ Curiosities

  • Harper Lee once worked as an airline reservation agent.
  • Her full name is Nelle Harper Lee. She decided to use Harper Lee as a pen name, assuming some readers would mispronounce her first name (which rhymes with ‘bell’).
  • The author’s father once defended two black men on murder charges. Amasa Coleman Lee wasn’t able to convince the jury, however, unlike the fictional Atticus Finch.
  • Flannery O’Connor dismissed “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a “children’s book.”
  • The 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird” won three Oscars (from eight nominations). The film’s hero, Atticus Finch, was chosen by the American Film Institute as the movie hero of the century, ahead of Indiana Jones (No. 2) and James Bond (No. 3).

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