MONROEVILLE, Ala. — Amy Burchfield, an English teacher, drove about nine hours from Arkansas to stand in line late on Monday night here in the town that Harper Lee made famous in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Ms. Burchfield and her teenage daughter, whom she named Scout, bought two copies of Ms. Lee’s new novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which was being released at midnight on Monday.
Al Jazeera came, too. And CNN and The Daily Telegraph. So did an Atticus Finch impersonator from Baltimore who also does a Dean Martin impression.
At the Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe, the only bookstore in town, about 200 people showed up. That’s a lot for a sleepy Southern town like this, but the store had expected twice as many. They had even hired a food truck to feed the crowd. The cooks stood idle most of the night.
By Tuesday morning, the town seemed to hold more journalists, volunteers and tourism officials than Harper Lee pilgrims. “It’s a historical event,” said Carrie Johnson, an art teacher at a community college nearby. “I thought there’d be more people, though.”Many residents of Monroeville, not to mention its Chamber of Commerce, had hoped, and planned, for a grand Harper Lee moment, ever since HarperCollins announced plans for the book’s publication in February.
Maybe the lower turnout was because you have to drive 25 minutes off the interstate to get here, some speculated. Or because it’s a workday. Or maybe it’s all the controversy.
While the civic- and literary-minded in town prepared for the rollout of “Go Set a Watchman,” early reviews shocked fans of Ms. Lee’s first book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” First came word that Ms. Lee might not have wanted to publish the novel she wrote and set aside more than a half-century ago, an assertion that still has the town divided, and that those close to her say is not true. Then there was the drastic recasting of Atticus Finch, who went from the hero in “To Kill a Mockingbird” to an aging and arthritic bigot in “Go Set a Watchman.”
So for the hundreds of visitors who showed up to take walking tours, wander through the library and enjoy free popcorn from the teenager running the Chamber of Commerce booth, the day was focused as much on analyzing the new book’s implications as on enjoying being at the epicenter of one of the biggest literary events in decades.
“People are already shocked that there was another book to begin with, and now that they are starting to see what’s in it, it’s just going to get worse,” said Marie Klepec, a medical assistant and Monroeville County Museum volunteer who goes to the Methodist church that Ms. Lee attended.
Some stores in other parts of the country saw an uptick in foot traffic on Tuesday. “It’s controversial, and I think that’s bringing a lot of people in,” said Mary Ferris, the assistant manager of the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, Pa., which had a midnight party with a champagne toast, and has sold nearly 100 books and ordered about 50 more.
But Monroeville, like a Southern matron with a family crisis but a party to host, put on its best face on Tuesday. A spokesman for Gov. Robert Bentley declared Tuesday “Go Set a Watchman” Day, and the museum sold commemorative silver cups for $55 each that would be filled with cocktails at 4 p.m.
Spencer Madrie, who owns the town’s sole bookstore with his mother, said it had been struggling financially. Then, like a gift from heaven, a new work was discovered by the most famous author in Alabama. He put 27,000 copies on order, and said on Tuesday afternoon that they had sold at least 8,500, most of which were preorders.
All morning, a small handful of volunteers took turns reading from the book in the courtroom where Ms. Lee grew up watching her father, the lawyer A. C. Lee, work his craft.
Monroeville remains divided about whether Ms. Lee, who had a stroke in 2007 and has been in a 15-bed assisted-living center since then, wanted the new book published.
The Alabama historian Wayne Flynt, who visited Ms. Lee on Monday and delivered a stack of press coverage, is adamant that she welcomed it.
The new book, he predicted, will ultimately transcend its racial implications and be seen as a study in how young children view their parents as perfect and then, between the ages of 13 and 30, see them as deeply flawed.
Baron Windham, 24, a Navy pilot living in Florida who grew up in South Carolina, had only recently read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and was instantly fascinated, so on Monday he drove to Monroeville. He took a walking tour and dressed in a seersucker suit for the midnight release party. On Tuesday, he began reading the new novel.
The controversy stems partly, he said, from the inability of many readers to accept what was a common perspective among 1950s Southern conservatives. “The new Atticus is more like the classic Southerner who believed integration was the right thing to happen but worried that to do it quickly would cause damage,” said Mr. Windham, who is white.
“Anytime Monroeville can get publicity, and it’s good publicity, we welcome it,” said Annie Hill, 50, who works for the museum and doesn’t think Ms. Lee approved of the book’s publication.
In a town where almost half the residents are black, she was one of only a handful of African-Americans celebrating the book’s release — on a day meant to honor a novel that took on with full force the racism Ms. Lee saw in her hometown during the 1950s.
“This Atticus lived in a different world, but there is a lot under the surface here still,” she said. Even though, she added, “we can hang out together and pray together and we seem equal, in some old Southern eyes, we will never be equal.”