Last week’s announcement that another novel by Harper Lee, author of the beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird, had been discovered and would be published in July stirred up a lot of controversy and questions. The recently discovered novel is titled Go Set a Watchman. Lee wrote this novel, set 20 years after the events in Mockingbird, first, but her publisher suggested that she rework the flashback sections into a new novel set at the time of the crucial events and narrated from the perspective of the young girl. That reworking became Mockingbird, narrated by the young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch.
Much of the uproar about news of the new novel involved questions of whether Harper Lee, now 88 years old, reportedly nearly blind and deaf, and living in an assisted-care facility, was mentally competent to participate in the decision to publish the discovered manuscript. Over the years Lee has repeatedly told people that she had said all she had to say in that book and would not be publishing another novel. The questioning was exacerbated when Tonja Carter, Lee’s attorney and the reported discoverer of the old manuscript, refused to answer inquiries or furnish more information.
This article reports that yesterday (Saturday) Carter finally answered questions through text messages and email:
Answering questions on Saturday through both emails and text messages, Ms. Carter said that Ms. Lee is “extremely hurt and humiliated” at the suggestion that she had been duped.
“She is a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long lost novel,” Ms. Carter said. “Instead, she is having to defend her own credibility and decision making.”
Much of the concern over the sudden announcement of the discovery of the manuscript was over Carter herself, who has become the gatekeeper over all issues involving Harper Lee, including who is allowed to visit her. Many sources have reported that Carter is really no johnny-come-lately to the scene. She worked at the law firm run by Alice Lee, Harper’s older sister who died last fall, and handled the settlement of Alice Lee’s will. But her initial refusal to provide more information about the discovery and planned publication of Harper Lee’s old manuscript raised questions:
Asked why she had not provided more detail about the discovery, which might have quelled suspicions, she said: “I am a lawyer, not a celebrity. The focus should be on the gift Harper Lee is giving the world.”
While some acquaintances of Harper Lee remain concerned over possible exploitation, others report that Lee is aware of and supports the publication of the novel that she thought had been lost.
When Ms. Carter revealed her discovery to Ms. Lee in August, the author was shocked, Ms. Carter recalled. Ms. Lee immediately asked her friend to repeat herself. Ms. Carter reiterated that she had found a novel, calling the book “Go Set the Watchman.” She was swiftly corrected: “It’s ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ ” Ms. Lee said.
Yesterday’s announcement that Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, would publish a second novel this July rocked the literary world. Here’s a collection of articles on the significance of the news.
Alexandra Alter reports in the books section of The New York Times that Harper Lee, now 88, “wrote another novel after all — a sequel of sorts to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” featuring an aging Atticus Finch and his grown daughter, Scout.”
This 304-page novel, Go Set a Watchman, takes place 20 years after the events depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird in the same fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. In this follow-up novel an adult Jean Louise Finch, Scout from Mockingbird, returns to visit her father. The novel “tackles the racial tensions brewing in the South in the 1950s and delves into the complex relationship between father and daughter.”
Lee wrote Watchman first, but her publisher liked the flashbacks featuring the younger Scout and told Lee to rewrite the book as a tale of the events narrated from the point of view of the young girl. The rewritten version became Mockingbird.
“I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” Ms. Lee said in a statement released by her publisher.
Reportedly, Harper Lee thought that her original manuscript for Watchman had been destroyed. But last fall her friend and attorney, Tonja Carter, discovered it hidden among Lee’s papers.
Charles J. Shields, the author of a biography of Ms. Lee that was published by Henry Holt in 2006, said he had come across references to “Go Set a Watchman” in Ms. Lee’s early correspondence with her literary agent. “’I figured it was an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ” Mr. Shields said. He also saw references from Ms. Lee’s editor to repeated revisions of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” as she tried telling the story from three different perspectives.
Alter quotes Shields as wondering whether Lee’s original writing in Watchman will hold up against Mockingbird, which was the product of heavy editing.
Literary critics and historians have long wondered why Lee never published another novel. Lee has shunned public appearances for decades, saying that the publicity surrounding her famous novel overwhelmed her and that she had said all she has to say in that novel.
Harper Lee issued a statement expressing her delight at the upcoming publication at the time of the announcement. But many people were surprised by the recent announcement and question whether the author had much say in it. Harper Lee has always been protective of the legacy of her famous novel. She suffered a stroke in 2007 and has been living in an assisted-living facility. Her older sister, Alice Lee, previously acted as her attorney and has handled legal issues involving unlicensed infringements on the novel. Alice Lee died last year.
Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher of Harper, the company that will publish Watchman, says that he never spoke about the deal with Harper Lee directly but communicated with her through Carter, her current attorney, and Andrew Nurnberg, her literary agent. “The statement Ms. Lee provided expressing her delight that the new novel will finally be published was delivered through her lawyer, Mr. Burnham said.”
Russell Berman interviewed Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham about the discovery and publication of Harper Lee’s new novel. This edited version of their discussion appears on The Atlantic’s web site.
When asked about how the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was found, Burnham replied:
It was found in this safe location near Harper Lee’s home. It was attached to an original copy of the manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s lawyer and friend, Tonja Carter, discovered it, sort of picked up the manuscript and flipped through it and then saw that some of the scenes and characters in the book had no relation to Mockingbird and realized it was actually two different books. This was the first time the manuscript had been found since heaven-knows-when. Harper Lee lost track of it in the ’60s.
Here’s what Burnham said when asked about Harper Lee’s reaction to the discovery of the manuscript she thought had been lost:
She was thrilled. She believed it to have been lost. She was delighted it was found. She’s always been a self-critical writer, so she shared it with some close friends and advisers, and they told her that it was extremely and eminently publishable. So she was thrilled. She’s very much engaged in the process, and she’s happy that it’s coming out. She knows that today’s the announcement date. She won’t be doing publicity for the book. She never has done—well, she hasn’t done any interviews since 1964, so that probably won’t change.
And here’s what Burnham had to say when asked about Harper Lee’s health, including reports that she is now blind and deaf:
Well I can only report that her agent spent a couple of days with her in January down in Alabama and described her to us as feisty and full of good spirits. She’s a fanatical reader. She reads all the time. She just started reading a biography of Queen Victoria by A.N. Wilson—just embarked on. So, no, she’s in fine fettle, by reports.
In answer to the question about how much editing the manuscript needs, Burnham replied that it’s a finished and polished work that will need only light copy editing. “So it’s not going to go through any extensive editorial process,” he added.
Jay Reeves reports for the Associated Press on the reaction in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, to the announcement of the upcoming publication of a new novel.
In the small Alabama town author Harper Lee made famous with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Southern classic novel can be seen and felt everywhere.
Signs in Monroeville are decorated with mockingbirds. The old courthouse, a model for the movie version of the book, is now a museum that sells souvenirs including coffee cups, aprons and Christmas ornaments. A statue in the town square and a mural decorating the side of a building depict characters who inhabited a fictional version of the town Lee called “Maycomb, Alabama.”
“Monroeville calls itself the “Literary Capital of Alabama,” a designation bestowed by the state Legislature in the late 1990s.” Other literary lights who lived in the city are Truman Capote, most famous for In Cold Blood, and editorialist Cynthia Tucker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Since the closing of the Vanity Fair mill and outlet nearly 20 years ago, tourism based on To Kill a Mockingbird has been Monroeville’s main source of income.
The nonprofit Monroe County Heritage Museum opens the old courthouse to visitors and features a display about Lee’s life in her own words. Fans can sit in the courtroom balcony depicted in the Academy Award-winning screen version of the book.
Area residents put on a play based on the book each spring, holding the first act of sold-out performances on the courthouse lawn, then taking patrons inside for the climactic courtroom scenes. While visitors are few in shops right now, they’ll return once winter is over.
In another article on The Atlantic web site, Megan Garber looks closely at the issue of why Harper Lee has now changed her mind about the publication of a second novel:
Harper Lee, née and known to those close to her as Nelle, spent the majority of her life not wanting Go Set a Watchman to be published. Or, at least, she has spent the majority of her life telling the media that she didn’t want Go Set a Watchman to be published.
Lee once told Oprah Winfrey, over a (private) lunch, why she’d never appear on her show: While people tended to compare her to Scout, she explained, “I’m really Boo.”
Boo is Boo Radley, the Finches’ reclusive neighbor in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Garber speculates on why Harper Lee has now changed her mind:
perhaps Lee, alive but ill, is being treated the way so many deceased authors are: as ideas rather than people, as brands and businesses rather than messy collections of doubts and desires.
Finally, another report by Associated Press writer Jay Reeves raises serious questions about Harper Lee’s competence to participate in the decision to publish her other novel, Go Set a Watchman, after all these years. Reeves reports on two friends of the Lee family who observed Harper Lee at the funeral of her older sister, Alice Lee, last November:
Grieving, ill and seated in a wheelchair, Lee talked loudly to herself at awkward times during the service for her beloved older sister and attorney, Alice, according to two family friends who attended the November service. Lee mumbled in a manner that shocked some in attendance, said one of the friends.