With hands pressed together, the tips of his fingers touching his lips, Idaho Seventh Judicial District Judge Gregory Moeller leaned back in his chair in the Madison County Courthouse to reminisce.
In 1960, American author Harper Lee gained international fame when her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize.
Hollywood quickly adapted the novel into a movie, which won several Academy Awards in 1962.
After such resounding success, the world waited anxiously for a second novel from Lee.
For 55 years, the world waited in silence.
On Feb. 3, publishing company HarperCollins announced it would release a second novel by Lee called Go Set a Watchman, and the media exploded with excitement.
“I was fortunate to discover very early in high school what I was going to be when I grew ,” Moeller said. “During my sophomore year in high school, I saw the movie To Kill a Mockingbird.”
In the movie, Atticus Finch; a white attorney defending Tom Robinson, an innocent black man, in a rape trial; packs his briefcase after the all-white jury delivered a guilty verdict.
As Atticus goes to exit the courthouse, the African-Americans in the segregated balcony give Atticus a silent standing ovation.
“I felt a chill go my spine,” Moeller said regarding the first time he saw that scene in high school. “Although I was only 14 or 15 years old at the time, I knew at that moment with absolute certainty that I would someday become a lawyer.”
Moeller said he felt, in that moment, he would also defend an innocent man in court one day.
“It was a moment of absolute clarity in my life,” the district judge said. “An epiphany, perhaps, that I will never forget.”
Paul Williams, the English and speech teacher at Central High School in Rexburg, said he had less clarity the first time he read the novel.
“It’s one of those novels that I read and I liked but didn’t realize that I liked it,” Williams said. “It’s one of those things where I constantly felt a compulsive glee reading it.”
Williams, a BYU-Idaho alumnus with a degree in history education, said he reads To Kill a Mockingbird regularly now with his classes.
“When I reread the book last year with some students, and was an adult, I realized how sophisticated the story telling is,” Williams said.
Suzette Kunz, a professor in the BYU-I English Department, said she first read To Kill a Mockingbird in eighth grade.
“My brother was reading it in school, and I stole it, read it and loved it,” Kunz said. “I like all of Scout’s exchanges with her dad because he’s trying to explain the world to her, and she has this unique perspective. It’s like they’re teaching each other.”
Moeller said his high-school premonition came true early in his career. As a young, 28-year-old attorney, he and his then partner, Michael Kam, defended an innocent man in a first-degree murder trial.
“Mike and I soon realized we had on our hands every attorney’s dream and worst nightmare,” Moeller said.
After an initial guilt verdict and years battling in appellate courts, the charges against his client finally were dropped, Moeller said.
Moeller said he sees strong parallels between Atticus’ court experience and his own, although he did not recognize it the time.
In 2009, Moeller gave a keynote address at Madison Public Library’s The Big Read kickoff, detailing the story of how To Kill a Mockingbird changed his life.
“There are few movies adapted from literature that capture the essence of the original book as well as To Kill a Mockingbird,” Moeller said. “The movie was a masterpiece. Nevertheless, those of you who have only seen the movie are missing out; the book is even better.”
Josh Allen, an English Department professor, said he has taught To Kill a Mockingbird twice at BYU-I.
“It’s just good writing is really what it comes down to,” Allen said. “There are a lot of other really important books out there that we don’t read because the writing’s not as good.”
Kunz said Atticus’ character makes the story endearing to readers.
“I think people see him as sort of the ideal man because he’s very wise and smart, but kind of humble and unassuming,” she said. “He’s asked to do a very difficult task and confront the racism in his town, and he does it with dignity.”
Allen said modern audiences could learn from Atticus’ passionate yet rational approach to problems.
“In the world that we live in today, we are often lulled into outrage,” Allen said. “We’re meant to be outraged by what we see on television. We’re meant to be outraged by this thing that has happened. We’re meant to be outraged by this thing a politician has said. Outrage is not an attribute that Atticus ever really manifests.”
Allen said some types of racism are difficult to identify.
“Racism is so insidious because it’s difficult to see,” Allen said. “Those who are racist often don’t know that they are.”
Allen said most Americans are familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird because the book has become standard reading in U.S. high schools
Lee became a legend in the literary world for being a one-novel author, which is why a second novel by her is so exciting, Williams said.
Lee originally wrote Go Set a Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird, and it will continue the story of the characters from Lee’s first published novel, according to HarperCollins.
“I am hopeful that the novel will be fantastic, that the writing will be good, but at the same time, I’m worried that it won’t live to the lofty expectations set by To Kill a Mockingbird,” Allen said. “So, I’m approaching it with cautious optimism.”
Kunz said she has mixed feelings about the new Lee novel.
“Sequels tend not to be as good as the original,” Kunz said. “Part of me likes to preserve my concept of who Scout is. I don’t know if I want to know what Scout’s like as an adult because you imagine on your own what she might be like.”
In his 2009 address, Moeller speculated about what a sequel would look like.
“If there had been a sequel to the book, what would the future have held for Atticus Finch?” he said. “I can envision several different scenarios.”
Moeller said he could see Atticus becoming disillusioned by the culture of his hometown, trying a career in politics, remaining a simple country lawyer, or being appointed a judge.
“This is my preferred scenario right now,” the district judge said. “I’m excited to see if any of my predictions come true.”
Go Set a Watchman has not avoided controversy. Several news organizations, including NPR and the BBC, have reported concerns about Lee’s age and lack of comment regarding the new novel.
Kunz said she worries some people may be exploiting 88-year-old Lee.
“I hope that’s not true,” Kunz said. “If it’s legitimate, if this is what she wants, then I think it’s great. I’m just a little wary of all the mixed reports I’ve been hearing.”
Moeller said he is not too worried about the controversy yet since it is entirely speculative so far.
Moeller’s story with To Kill a Mockingbird came full circle shortly after publishing his 2009 address. After a friend shared Moeller’s article with Lee, the author sent him a personally autographed copy of her novel.
“It’s become a family heirloom,” Moeller said.