Today, many thought the Associated Press had accidentally released their April Fools Day piece early. After all, how many of us could have predicted that over 50 years after its release, there would be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, written by the great Harper Lee, and that it would be published in our day and age. The press release revealed a number of details about Go Set a Watchman, some more vague than others, but Lee’s own words (or what appear to be) were warm, humble and enthusiastic about the project. HarperCollins are also excited to have pulled off the literary coup of the century, and have set a 2m first print run, with no promotional work by Lee, who has spent the majority of her life living very privately in Alabama.
It’s hard to overstate the glee this news has evoked in readers of all ages. Twitter of course launched into prime joke mode with imagined sequel names, digs at other writers (JD Salinger and George RR Martin the favourite targets) and speculation over the plot. While we know the story will follow Scout Finch, the young narrator of the Pulitzer Prize winning first book (and won’t referring to that book as the first one always be incredibly strange?) as an adult in the 50s, little else has been revealed.
The book itself is not the only part of the story readers have questions about. Why would Lee, who by all accounts was not especially eager to publish a second novel, do so now and after such a long time and at the age of 89? Lee has been in the headlines sporadically over the past couple of years with reports of ill health and lethal battles too, so the circumstances relating to this news are not particularly positive ones.
In May 2013, Lee filed a suit to regain copyright of her work after claiming that a son-in-law of her former literary agent duped her out of the rights while she was in an assisted living facility. Her health was reported to not be in great shape, with her eyesight and hearing failing. Both sides of the suit had settled by September, but the story didn’t end there.
Last year saw the publication of The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills, an account of the author’s time living in the hometown of Lee and her older sister Alice (who died in November aged 103, and was still practicing law by 100) and the interactions she had with the pair. Mills claimed both sister approved of the book and participated in its origins, but Lee was quick to denounce such claims (through a third party). Lee’s affairs are likely handled through lawyers, particularly now that she is without any living family. A Vulture piece reported a letter written by Alice that revealed much about her sister’s infirm state:
“When I questioned Tonja” — her onetime protégé, inheritor of A.C. Lee’s firm — “I learned that without my knowledge she had typed out the statement, carried it to [Nelle’s apartment], and had Nelle Harper sign it … Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident … I am humiliated, embarrassed, and upset about the suggestion of lack of integrity at my office.”
With this knowledge in our possession, we are left with a number of unanswered questions about the ethical and legal security of Harper Lee, the possibility of her being exploited by those supposed to be looking out for her best interests, and the integrity of HarperCollins. Alice, Lee’s most stalwart defender, has been dead for barely 3 months and all of a sudden there’s a new book contract and a statement from a woman who it is known has signed contracts in her unsound state without knowing what they entail? Harper Collins get the deal of a lifetime (and something that will assuredly help tumbling hardcover sales), Lee’s suspect lawyer will undoubtedly pocket from the advance, and Lee? It’s an increasingly difficult scenario to think about.
It’s tough to know if we’ll ever be 100% certain of the facts in this extremely messy situation, but it’s become impossible for me to look at this case and feel the joy I experienced when the news first broke, which now seems like an age ago. There are some things we can be sure of: Harper Lee is a true great and deserves nothing but our utmost respect. We will all rush out to buy Go Set A Watchman and a million other think-pieces will be written. HarperCollins will dance all the way to the bank. After many decades of self-imposed silence, we may never near the truth of Harper Lee. Whatever the case, it’s clear that, for some, once again profits trump people.