As you’ve likely heard, Harper Lee’s book “Go Set a Watchmen” is set for release this summer. It’s the 88-year-old’s first published work since the Pulitzer-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1960 and was the top-rated order on Amazon.com the day after the news.
What’s at the center of the recent storm is whether the infirmed author knowingly agreed to the publication. Reports are conflicted.
On one side are the publisher HarperCollins and Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter. Their portrait is of a surprised and elated author who has uncovered lost treasure.
“I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it,” a statement from the publisher read. “After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
Though set after “Mockingbird,” “Watchman” was its predecessor, turned down when Lee was a struggling New York City writer in the 1950s. Literary agent Maurice Crain told her to concentrate on the collection’s passages recollecting her youth in small-town Alabama.
Lee sweated through the revisions and new novel that became “Mockingbird.” It eventually sold 40 million copies globally and was translated into 40 languages.
As expected, doubts surround this latest news. Most orbit Lee’s physical and mental state following a 2007 stroke that reportedly left her nearly deaf and blind.
Then there’s the absence of older sister, Alice Lee. One of Alabama’s longest-practicing lawyers until she retired near age 100, Alice was chief representative for the famous younger sister – Nelle as she’s known to friends – for most of the last half-century.
In a letter dated May 12, 2011, Alice Lee said her sister “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”
Alice was also a mentor to Tonja Carter, the law partner who took up the flag for Nelle when Alice stepped aside. Carter restricted contact with the author who now resides in assisted living.
Following Alice’s death last year at 103, small-town gossip grew about Nelle’s behavior at Alice’s graveside service. Others maintain Carter found the “Watchman” manuscript amidst Alice’s secured belongings and made publication decisions unilaterally.
“I’m shocked and skeptical and I’ve already ordered the book,” Mobilian Tom Mason said. He curated exhibits on Harper Lee and Truman Capote in Monroeville’s museum and has an established relationship with family and friends of both authors from six months of research and sorting through artifacts and memorabilia. Carter’s father-in-law, a cousin to Capote, donated portions of those exhibits.
Carter’s role in a 2013 Lee lawsuit against the Monroeville museum for unauthorized profiteering divided local loyalties and damaged one of her business ventures. She has refused media requests.
One of Alabama’s most esteemed historians, Wayne Flynt is sure of the author’s mental acuity. He and his wife have regular visits with Lee.
“Does she understand what’s going on? If you make her hear, she can understand what’s going on,” Flynt said to NPR. “Can she give informed consent? Absolutely, she can give informed consent. She knows what she likes, who she likes, what she doesn’t like. Mainly, she doesn’t like people to disturb her and interrupt her privacy and probe in her personal business.”
That certainly fits with Lee’s longtime role as Monroeville’s version of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. Though generally friendly with townsfolk, she has been known to grow prickly.
“No one was in the room with the lawyer and [Lee] at the time any of these negotiations or signings went on,” Flynt said. “And so, until someone shows me some evidence and not some rumor, I have no reason to doubt the lawyer’s concern about what is best for Harper Lee.”
In 2009, it was reported Lee still earned $9,249 daily in “Mockingbird” royalties. Within the last few years, she filed a lawsuit against former agent Sam Pinkus who was alleged to have cheated Lee from “Mockingbird” royalties. Pinkus was order to repay monies in the settlement.
Looking at the media coverage this publication announcement generated on the web, the influence of “Mockingbird” is obvious. The globe has apparently descended upon little Monroeville.
Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the new book will be putting to rest even older whispering: that Capote – famously an inspiration for the character Dill in “Mockingbird” – was the chief force behind that novel. Those are preposterous.
“We have one handwritten letter from 1959 to Truman’s aunt where he said: ‘Yes, it is true that Nelle Lee is publishing a book. I liked it very much. She has real talent,’” Mason said about an artifact used in the museum.
It’s rather that Lee’s assistance with Capote’s own blockbuster “In Cold Blood” was never properly acknowledged by her childhood pal. Also, the difference in their voices is stark and self-evident.
A brilliant author, Capote never won a Pulitzer and it gnawed at him. Combined with his lack of production after “In Cold Blood,” his chemical issues and sizable ego, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have claimed credit for “Mockingbird” had it been merited.
If anything, “Watchman” is likely to reveal the effect of Crain and editor Tay Hohoff as “Mockingbird” was over two years in painstaking development. Craftsmanship and contrast, perhaps with many of the same incidences and memories will be at the fore.
In that regard, it’s a gift to generations of future writers eager to learn. It’s a prism of perseverance.