The literary world is celebrating the news that Harper Lee will release a sequel to her beloved novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a mere 55 years after she published that schoolroom classic.

But the decision to publish is risky, partly because Mockingbird’s enduring reputation has only been enhanced by the reclusive 88-year-old’s fame as a one-novel novelist.

HarperCollins Publishers announced Tuesday that its Harper imprint has acquired North American rights to Go Set A Watchman, a lost novel that Ms. Lee wrote before she produced To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, and will publish it in July. To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel about race and class in the South during the Depression, won the Pulitzer Prize and became a cherished narrative of white American liberalism widely taught in classrooms in both the United States and Canada. It is narrated by the six-year-old Scout Finch, recounting her lawyer father’s defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman.

As Ms. Lee explains in her publisher’s news release, she originally wrote a novel about the adult Scout’s relationship with her father, Atticus, and included the childhood scenes as flashbacks.

Those scenes became To Kill a Mockingbird whileGo Set a Watchman is set 20 years later and thus can be billed as a sequel.

“I thought it a pretty decent effort,” the news release quotes her as saying. “My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered 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. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

Publication might backfire, however, because Ms. Lee will be exposing youthful work that a previous editor deemed less interesting than her classic tale – and because she has gained such notoriety for never following up on its success.

Apparently both shocked and greatly distracted by the intense publicity that greeted the success of Mockingbird, Ms. Lee never published another book and by 1965 was declining all interviews. In the last one she gave, to the author Roy Newquist in 1964, she said she was working on a second novel very slowly. Later, she was sometimes quoted as saying she did not publish another book because she had said all she had to say.

While Ms. Lee’s voice has always been noted for its humour and originality,To Kill a Mockingbird has also been criticized as sentimental and implausible, especially in the way it attributes adult knowledge to a six-year-old girl. Go Set a Watchman may prove to be of academic or historic interest in revealing the original adult form that character took, but there is also the real possibility the sequel will expose the limits of Ms. Lee’s talent.

More troubling, Ms. Lee, who has lived in an assisted living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., since suffering a stroke in 2007, has been involved in a series of disagreements with those who have access to her and her work. In 2013, Ms. Lee settled out of court a suit against her former agent, Samuel Pinkus, that alleged he had tricked her into signing over her copyright for Mockingbird, which still sells 750,000 copies every year in North America. Ms. Lee’s suit stated she was in poor health and had difficulties both hearing and seeing.

In 2011, she issued a statement disputing the idea that she had collaborated with Marja Mills on what appeared to be an authorized memoir. In The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, the journalist recounts how she conducted long interviews with Ms. Lee and her older sister Alice over a period of several years. The book was successfully published in 2014, but during that dispute a letter was released in which Alice Lee told Ms. Mills that her sister “will sign anything put before her by any one in whom she has confidence.”

Alice Lee, who died last year at 103, was working as a lawyer until 2011 and had overseen her sister’s affairs until they were gradually handed over to Ms. Carter, the friend and lawyer Ms. Lee credits with finding the lost manuscript of Go Set a Watchman. Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham told The New York Times on Tuesday that all his communications with Ms. Lee were conducted through Ms. Carter and Ms. Lee’s literary agent, but that he is confident the novelist has approved the deal.

Still, both her lifelong horror of publicity and her current condition raise the question whether a healthy, middle-aged Ms. Lee would have agreed to publish a first attempt at fiction that may yet detract from the title on which her fame rests. Go Set a Watchman is likely to be the bestselling English-language book of 2015 as fans and critics parse its pages to discover whether its publication is a heartwarming story of a lost gem now reigniting an interrupted career – or a literary blunder by a deluded old lady.

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Feb. 03 2015, 9:05 PM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Feb. 03 2015, 9:10 PM EST