Harper Lee: Suspicion Swirls Around Decision To Publish After 55 Years

It is a story filled with intrigue and mystery — perhaps worthy of the writer’s pen in question — but those involved in the upcoming publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee are moving to quash speculation that the beloved author is being manipulated into her first book deal in over half a century.

Harper Lee, now 88-years-old and living in a nursing home after suffering a severe stroke in 2007, is almost as famous for her withdrawal from the public eye as she is for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel she published in 1960. To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant bestseller and has never been out of print. It is widely considered to be a classic of American literature, and specifically of the Southern Gothic genre — dealing, as it does, with racial inequality and the loss of innocence.

Set between 1933 and 1935, the story is told by 6-year-old Scout Finch, who lives in the fictional Maycomb, Alabama, with her older brother, Jem, and their widowed lawyer father, Atticus. The family faces an increasingly hostile backlash from members of their local community, as Atticus defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Scout, Jem, and their friend, Dill (whose character is based on the author’s childhood friend, Truman Capote), find an unexpected ally in their reclusive neighbor, “Boo” Radley.

The book that will soon be published, Go Set a Watchman, was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and is essentially Harper Lee’s first novel-length manuscript. It features the same character, Scout Finch, but she is in adulthood, sometimes reflecting on her childhood. Legend has it that, those who read Watchman at the time encouraged Harper Lee to write a book focused solely on Scout’s childhood, and thus Mockingbird was created, turning the author into an overnight success.

Disturbed by her sudden fame and the unwanted intrusion into her privacy that such adulation caused, Harper Lee withdrew from the public eye soon after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and communicated to the wider world only through her older sister, Alice, who was Harper Lee’s lawyer and representative. Alice Lee dealt with all matters concerning her sister’s estate and the ongoing publication of her novel, the residuals for which amount to millions of dollars per year. It is this relationship, which protected Harper Lee from public view for over half a century, that has given rise to speculation, now that Go Set a Watchman has suddenly been announced for publication — not least because it comes just two months after the death of Alice Lee.

Charles Shields, who wrote a biography about Harper Lee, explained his suspicions to the Guardian.

“Alice Lee was about 12 years her sister’s senior, and she was Harper Lee’s buffer against the publicity-hungry world. Alice advised Harper about financial matters, contracts, rights and the rest of it. I can’t think it’s just coincidence that two months after Alice’s death, this 60 year old manuscript is suddenly available for publication. Understanding the relationship between the sisters as I do, I doubt whether Alice would have allowed this project to go forward. [The book] was written before Harper had the benefit of a strong, experienced editor at her eventual publisher. Consider that ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ went through several complete drafts. Although my fingers are crossed, I suspect ‘Go Set A Watchman’ will show signs of what it is: a first attempt at novel-writing by a young, inexperienced author.”

The concern stems from the fact that Harper Lee’s affairs have been taken over by Tonja Carter — protégé of Alice Lee and her replacement at the family law firm since her death. It was Mrs. Carter who found the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman in a “secure location,” as reported by the Telegraph, and subsequently brokered a lucrative publishing deal for it. Since all communications from Harper Lee are released by Mrs. Carter, many are suspicious as to whether the statements come from Harper Lee at all. First-hand verification is difficult, as access to Harper Lee is managed entirely by her new lawyer, Tonja Carter. Local businessman and long-time friend of Harper Lee Sam Therrell commented on the situation to the Telegraph.

“Nelle [Harper Lee] was always very clear that she didn’t want another book to be published, that she was happy out of the limelight and away from the media focus. So it’s very surprising to hear that she is suddenly so keen for this new book to come out… I’ve no idea why people are being kept from Nelle. You’d have to ask Mrs Carter about that.”

With suspicions swirling and speculation rife, the international rights agent who negotiated the deal for Go Set a Watchman, Andrew Nurnberg, explained to the Guardian via email that he did meet with Harper Lee recently, and found her to be enthusiastic about the publication.

“There will inevitably be speculation regarding Harper Lee as she has lived a very private life. She was genuinely surprised at the discovery of the manuscript, but delighted by the suggestion to publish what she considers to be the ‘parent’ to ‘Mockingbird.’ I met with her last autumn, and again over two days in January; she was in great spirits and increasingly excited at the prospect of this novel finally seeing the light of day.”

Alabama historian Wayne Flynt is one person who does visit Harper Lee regularly and is unconnected with the author’s business affairs. He related to AL.com his belief that Harper Lee is entirely in control of the decision to publish Go Set a Watchman.

“As late as yesterday, she was quite lucid, because I was there talking with her… I don’t think anyone would have done this without Nelle’s full knowledge and consent.”

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee, is due to be published on July 14, 2015.

[Image via Makers.com]

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