Culture

An Uncomfortable Question

Harper Lee in 2007 receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Did Harper Lee actually approve the forthcoming Mockingbird follow-up?

Harper Lee says she is “alive and kicking and happy as hell” about the reaction to the surprising news that she will be releasing a second novel this summer, 55 years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.

That’s according to a statement released on Thursday by Lee’s lawyer, in an attempt to dispel doubts that have been raised — some of them by people who know Lee personally — about whether, after five decades of steadfastly eschewing the limelight and declining to publish again, she’s been pressured in old age and declining health into releasing a sequel of sorts to the book that made her famous.

It’s impossible to know for certain what the truth of the matter is, as Lee is not talking to the press, and all of her statements about it have come through the lawyer, Tonja Carter, who is reported to have power of attorney over her client’s affairs. We have been told, though, that whatever her feelings about or understanding of the book’s forthcoming release, it wasn’t Lee’s idea to publish it.

According to Lee’s publisher and foreign-rights agent, Carter discovered an old manuscript of the new work, Go Set a Watchman, attached to an original manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird that she’d found in “a secure location,” probably a safe-deposit box. Carter brought it over to show to the 88-year-old Lee, at the assisted-living facility where she resides. Lee, who had forgotten about the unreleased manuscript’s existence, initially “didn’t think it needed to be published,” her agent, Andrew Nurnberg, told the Guardian. “She questioned — is this really good? Are you sure? And when we said yes, she said if you think so, do it.”

Nurnberg forcefully insists that, notwithstanding reports that the wheelchair-bound Lee — who suffered a stroke in 2007 — is increasingly going blind and deaf, “this isn’t somebody with dementia who is being led up the garden path.” He can at least speak with the authority of someone who has made direct contact with her recently, apparently something that nobody at her publisher, HarperCollins, can claim to have done.

Lee’s editor there gave a bizarre interview to New York magazine immediately after the announcement of the book’s release on Tuesday. He revealed that he had learned about the manuscript a day earlier, had not communicated with Lee about it, and had no certain knowledge of anything pertaining to its provenance, discovery, or how or whether it would be edited. His status as her “editor” seems to mean, by his account, that he met her at a party eight years ago and now occasionally writes her letters that go unanswered.

In 2011, Thomas Lane Butts, a Methodist minister and close friend of Lee’s, told the Telegraph that she had once shared with him the two reasons she’d never written another book: “One, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.’”

Perhaps Lee has changed her mind. Perhaps now she really is thrilled by the idea of an old novel of hers — one she’d never before thought worthy of publication — being resurrected and catapulted to the top of the bestseller list, where Go Set a Watchman already sits based on pre-order sales alone. Perhaps she no longer dreads the media scrutiny that will inevitably ensue. #page#

At the very least, though, there seems to be something less than straightforward in presenting this work to the world as Harper Lee’s long-lost, long-anticipated second novel. It features To Kill a Mocking Bird’s main character, Scout, as a grown woman returned to her childhood town. In the press release put out by HarperCollins, Lee is quoted explaining how she wrote the book back in the 1950s: “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.” That novel became Mockingbird, and the other was set aside, until now.

Despite the claim in the press release that this early effort represented a “completed” novel, it seems clear enough that it was a draft from which Mockingbird grew, albeit in quite a different form. In a long 2002 profile of Lee for the Chicago Tribune, journalist Marja Mills — who, incidentally is the author of a recent Harper Lee biography at the center of a not entirely unrelated controversy — described the process this way: “Her initial efforts were short stories. Then, at the suggestion of her literary agent, Maurice Crane, she expanded one of them into what would become ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

Nurnberg told the Guardian that old letters between Lee and her agent had recently been discovered, letters that “discussed publishing Mockingbird first, Watchman last, and a shorter connecting novel between the two. It would appear she never wrote or finished the middle novel, but it is clear that Lippincott was planning on publishing Watchman.” If that is true, it seems hard to reconcile with the notion that Lee herself had never considered the idea of Watchman’s publication, or had simply forgotten about its existence.

There is of course nothing wrong with publishing immature, rough, or even unfinished works by authors whose literary reputations have already been secured. It’s just usually done after their death, and with a clearer indication of the work’s provenance.

Maybe Go Set a Watchman really is a finished and long-forgotten book that Lee now genuinely wants to share with the public. I hope so. I hope it turns out to be good. And even if it isn’t particularly good, I’m glad that we’ll get to read another story written by the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I just wish we could be sure that she was glad about it too.

Katherine Connell is a deputy managing editor at National Review.

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