By Kathleen Drew
The literary world is poised for what many are calling the biggest book event of the decade, the July 14 publication of Harper Lee’s long lost first novel Go Set a Watchman. Lee has not published a book since 1960, when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel was an instant sensation, won the 34-year-old author a Pulitzer Prize and was later made into an Academy Award-winning movie. Fans gave up long ago on the hope that it would be followed by a second book, and Lee herself reportedly told friends she could never complete another novel. When the lost manuscript, the precursor to Mockingbird, was found, anticipation reached a fever pitch — as did concern over the author’s true wishes.
“All I want to be is the Jane Austen of Southern Alabama,” Harper Lee told Roy Newquist in a taped radio conversation in 1964, her last formal interview. Lee greatly exceeded that wish with Mockingbird. In the decades that followed its publication, Mockingbird has sold over 40 million copies, has been translated into over 40 languages and is required reading for many middle school students in the United States and beyond.
In meticulous Southern prose, Mockingbird focused on segregation, tolerance and the trial of a black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman during the Depression era in rural Alabama. “I thought she was extremely courageous to write that book about her hometown. Of course, she said it was fiction but we could identify some of the characters from people in town,” said Mary Tucker, a retired African-American schoolteacher who lived through segregation and who spoke with Yahoo global news anchor Katie Couric in Monroeville, Ala, Lee’s hometown. Rick Bragg, a former New York Times journalist and best-selling author from Alabama, told Katie, “She wrote the story that explained us to ourselves. A lot of us, you know, were not piebald racists. A lot of us knew that the cruelty that came to light in our region was dead wrong,” he says. “But she put it in a story.”
Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee in 1926, one of four children. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a homemaker. Everyone who knows her calls her Nelle, which was derived from her grandmother’s name, Ellen, spelled backwards. She grew up next door to another famous writer, Truman Capote, and they bonded.
After Capote headed to New York City to begin a writing career, Nelle, then 23, followed in 1949. She held various jobs, including ticket agent for Eastern Airlines, and struggled financially but continued to write when she could. Thanks to a generous gift from friends Michael and Joy Brown in New York, Lee was able to take a year off to write.
She wrote her first novel, and a talented editor named Tay Hohoff told her the manuscript had some interesting characters, but the narrative wasn’t perfect. Lee was directed to go and focus on the characters when they were 20 years younger, in the 1930s. After two years of writing and rewriting, the result was To Kill a Mockingbird.
The book catapulted Lee into the limelight, but the media attention became too much for her and she retreated from the public eye, refusing interviews and appearances. It looked like there would be no second act for Lee.
But that all changed last February when publishing house Harper Collins announced that a new book had been discovered. Lee had moved back to Monroeville after suffering a stroke and was in an assisted living facility. Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, said she had found the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman last August in a safe deposit box.
“Nobody quite knew where it was. The author, Harper Lee, didn’t know where it was,” said Jonathan Burnham, Senior Vice President and Publisher of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. He says Carter contacted Lee’s literary agent, who also read it. They talked to Lee themselves and then came to HarperCollins because it is the publisher of Mockingbird, according to Burnham.
Burnham says the book was unedited and takes place in the 1950s. “Jean Louise, who is Scout as a grown woman, is a 26-year-old girl working in New York City who goes back to her home town of Maycomb and visits her father, strikes up old friendships, visits characters that we remember from Kill a Mockingbird,” Burnham says. “It’s the story of that particular visit and what happens on that visit.”
HarperCollins has printed over two million copies and with the strongest presales in the company’s history, Watchman jumped to the top of many bestseller lists. But the controversy over the book’s discovery was just beginning. Many wondered if Lee, then 88, deaf and suffering from macular degeneration, had agreed to the publication.
Sam Therrell, who owns Radley’s Fountain Grille in Monroeville and knew Lee for many years, is among those who are suspicious. “This so-called ‘discovery’ of the manuscript didn’t ring true to me,” he told Yahoo News. “As far as her ability to effectively give her consent, I have serious doubts that she did that either.”
A complaint of elder abuse was filed with Alabama’s Department of Human Resources. The Alabama Securities Commission was enlisted, as well, to look into whether Lee was able to consent to the book’s publication. Lee and others at the Meadows assisted living facility were interviewed. The agencies told Yahoo News they closed the investigation after finding she was coherent and wanted the book published.
Dr. Wayne Flynt, a professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, has met with Harper Lee more than 100 times since she returned to Monroeville, and continues to visit her regularly. “All I know is members of the family felt this is probably not a good idea. And, when they (asked Harper Lee), ‘Are you sure you want to do this?,’ five times in two days she said, ‘Of course. Yes’,” said Flynt.
The controversy over the discovery of Watchman ratcheted up a notch recently, bringing into question exactly when the manuscript was discovered. Sotheby’s confirmed to Yahoo News a report that rare books specialist Justin Caldwell went to Monroeville in October of 2011 to look at Lee’s literary documents, stored in a bank safety deposit box, for insurance and other purposes at the request of Lee’s agent at the time, Samuel Pinkus.
In a statement to Yahoo News, Pinkus says he, Caldwell and lawyer Carter were present when the documents were being reviewed. Pinkus wrote, “The review by Ms. Carter, me and Mr. Caldwell took some time and Ms. Carter fully participated.”
Tonja Carter wrote in a statement, “During my time in the meeting no one said, and it never occurred to me, that there appeared to be a manuscript of a second book in the safe deposit box.” She added there were no comments made about finding a second book in subsequent emails with Pinkus, and maintains that she discovered Watchman in August of 2014.
Meanwhile, the controversy has not put a damper on readers’ interest and booksellers’ promotions. Barnes and Noble, with 648 stores, is promoting Watchman by reintroducing Mockingbird, which has enjoyed a big boost in sales.
Will Go Set a Watchman burnish Harper Lee’s credentials as one of the greatest American writers of all time, or will it be a disappointing, unpolished story in need of the refinement that brought us Mockingbird?
Readers around the world will be able to judge for themselves on July 14.