The Fragile Case of Harper Lee & Why Go Set A Watchman Isn't Exactly Great News
Don’t get me wrong. I was as excited as the next person when news broke about Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird earlier this week. What a thrill to be able to read something else by Lee and imagine Scout all grown up. But with the news comes concern and a bit of suspicion about the circumstances of Go Set a Watchman and Lee’s real intentions.
Here are the facts: Lee is almost deaf and blind living in a nursing home in Monroeville. Her sister, Alice, who served as her legal protector, died just three months ago. And since the publishing of Mockingbird, Lee has gone to great lengths to stay out of the limelight and also stated in the past that she said everything she had to say in one book. The rest of the story is rumor and conjecture, but it’s worth considering, especially for devoted fans who truly care about Harper Lee.
This publishing of a new book seems to be a continuation of last year’s news that Lee was suing her hometown museum. In fact, a series of lawsuits in recent years started with one in which Lee claimed she signed a document she didn’t mean to sign. It assigned the copyright of her books to agent Samuel Pinkus, and she sued him in 2013 to get it back. Her lawyer, Tonja Carter, an associate of the late Alice Lee and a cousin of Truman Capote by marriage, has handled the lawsuits and is also handling the publishing of Watchman.
Since the initial frenzy, many publications have begun to dig a little deeper and question what’s really going on here. Electric Lit asks “Should We Hold the Horses on the Harper Lee Celebration?“, calling the whole thing a little sketchy. Gawker really delves into Carter and her intentions in “How Unauthorized Is the New Book About Harper Lee?” And the Vulture interview with her Harper Collins editor only adds to the confusion.
A tweet from Mia Farrow asking “Is someone taking advantage of our national treasure, 88-year-old Harper Lee?” gets to the heart of the issue. Maybe Carter is her trusted ally and truly working to fulfill Lee’s final wishes in life, but if she’s not there’s no one to stop her. Claims from Harper Collins Editor Jonathan Burnham that Lee is very much engaged in the process of publishing this second book and a prepared statement from Lee that reads “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman” sound fishy. As Frances Wilson points out in The Telegraph, it [Watchman] wasn’t considered fit for publication the first time around. So how likely is it that Lee is jumping for joy at the appearance of a book that is evidently not as good as its predecessor?”
Alabama.com has been rightfully skeptical of the whole thing and may be the best source for news from people who are as close to Lee as one can get in the current situation. They published “Hometown friends say Harper Lee was manipulated into publishing second book” on Wednesday, along with an editorial by Thomasville resident Kyle Whitemire in which he emphasizes Lee’s legacy in town and says “I’ll respect Nelle Harper Lee’s silence, as I was taught as a child. But not theirs.” Whitmire is calling for more explanation on the part of the publishers, agents and lawyers involved, which seems like a very reasonable request.
Others, like fellow Monroeville author Mark Childress, have resorted to humor. On his Facebook page, Childress wrote: “Yes, I did see the announcement that Miss Nelle Harper Lee will publish her second novel, GO SET A WATCHMAN, with Harper. I think she did a great job on the first one, and I trust that this second one will really take off.” And McSweeney’s has “Harper Lee’s Letters To Her Editor After The Publication Of To Kill A Mockingbird” in which she proposes sequels like Boo Radley: Time Cop and To Surf a Mockingbird.
Lee’s physical and mental state are nothing to laugh about though, especially now that her sister is gone and no longer able to advocate for her. In last summer’s book Mockingbird Next Door, Chicago journalist Marja Mills, one of the first people allowed to get close to Lee in a long time, notes that the writer’s condition had worsened and her memory was failing after a stroke. “By the time I saw her a couple of visits later, she was not the Nelle I knew,” Mills wrote in the book. A similar statement from Alice that is particularly telling confirms this. “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” Alice wrote to Mills.
Is Lee capable of making decisions about her work and legacy at this stage in her life? Maybe, but it’s evident that she is not able to see any documents she is signing. Her lawyer has power of attorney, but it could be a power that’s being abused for personal and financial gain. Maybe Go Set a Watchman has been sitting in a safe deposit box all these years and was just discovered by accident, but that doesn’t mean Lee wants it published, at least not while she’s still alive. In my opinion, the honorable thing to do is wait until she passes away and then explore further literary opportunities with her publisher Harper Collins and editor Hugh Van Dusen (who learned about the book along with the rest of us this week). I’d feel a lot better about reading Go Set a Watchman then.