Learning to walk in Harper Lee’s shoes

Alice Mottram 6 February 2015

The pressure Harper Lee must be feeling under the release of her second novel is immense. Lee’s status as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century has been the result of her debut and thus far sole novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Its critical and popular success, in addition to its cultural significance, led to Lee being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for contributions to literature – a contribution of little more than 200 pages. 

Pressure to produce success is a struggle with which any Cambridge student can identify. After having been amongst the exalted few at school, the meeting of great minds at Cambridge can leave one feeling dejected and stupid. It is easy to sink into the mindset that you’re never going to achieve anything, and that you therefore shouldn’t bother trying. Many of the peers with whom we share our time at this University will go on to greatness, be it the seemingly natural progression of Footlights to fame, or from Cambridge blue to Olympic gold. Their prowess only heightens our sense of mediocrity.

Comparisons will undoubtedly be made between To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee’s new novel Go Set a Watchman. It will potentially suffer from the comparison to a novel which it can arguably never better. Whilst To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book, it has been idolised within both literature and popular culture and become the subject of cultish worship. This is in part due to it having been, for over 50 years, the reclusive author’s only published work. Her reputation has rested on its laurels, and she will now be judged more keenly as a writer in the wake of Go Set a Watchman

Such scrutiny, and potential for failure, could have dissuaded the 88 year old Lee from publishing anything new. In a statement made via her publisher, Lee said that it was her friends she turned to for advice, and on whose encouragement she decided to publish the novel. Students will be collectively excited by the prospect of a sequel to the much loved classic, and respect Lee for the risk she is taking. As Lee taught us to walk in another man’s shoes, perhaps it is into her shoes we should now step, so as we might learn how to take a chance and reap the rewards of success.