This week marks the release of Go Set A Watchman, the second book to be published from author Harper Lee, 55 years after the first, To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee attended the University of Alabama and wrote for the same campus newspaper that many of my students have staffed. So, the release of Watchman has perhaps been on my radar a bit longer than others. And since the announcement, I’ve had a sick feeling in my stomach about it.
Lee neither seeks nor enjoys public attention. She does not grant interviews with media (the last was in 1964). She still lives in Monroeville, Ala., the small country town of her birth. And those close to her have long told the press that Lee had no desire to publish again.
In 2007, Lee, hard of hearing and sight recovering from a stroke in an assisted living home, signed away her copyright to Mockingbird, leading to an ugly legal battle to recover it. This Vanity Fair feature from 2013 is absolutely worth your time.
So, when Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, announced that she had stumbled upon a long-lost manuscript, and publisher HarperCollins added that Lee was “happy as hell” to publish it, one had to wonder if someone else close to Lee was taking advantage of the author who now permanently resides in a nursing home.
An AL.com reporter visited Lee’s hometown the day after the Watchman announcement in February. The resulting story lead: “Multiple residents of Monroeville who have known Harper Lee for years said Wednesday that they believe the 88 [now 89]-year-old author does not possess sufficient mental faculties to make informed decisions about her literary career.”
[UPDATE: The State of Alabama Human Resources Department and Securities Commission investigated the circumstances of the book release for evidence of elder abuse. Officials interviewed Lee and others close to her shortly after Watchman was announced. When the New York Times brought the government involvement to light, the case was quickly closed, with no evidence of elder abuse reported. These details should have been included in the original blog post. My thanks to the commenters who mentioned them.]
Plans to publish the book came within uncomfortably close proximity to the death of Harper Lee’s sister, Alice Lee, an attorney and longtime protector of the author’s estate. When Watchman was announced, Carter claimed she had only recently found the manuscript. However, the New York Times makes a pretty compelling case that the manuscript was uncovered in 2011.
The profiteering theory was aided in no small part by Monday’s news that – surprise! – Carter stumbled upon what might be a third book. And she just happened to find it the week before Watchman’s media-hyped release. Or, as The Onion put it:
Regardless of which date of discovery you believe, the text of Watchman was found attached to a copy of Mockingbird. It was written before Mockingbird, and though Lee attempted to publish Watchman first, it eventually became a working draft of sorts – containing the beginnings of what came to be the Pulitzer-winning novel.
Most notably, we find a much different Atticus Finch in Watchman. The civil rights hero of Mockingbird is overtly racist, and that bothers a lot of people. Albert Burneko, writing for Deadspin of all places, makes the case for why that doesn’t have to change your view of the Finch you discovered in school.
The circumstances of publication aren’t going to bother the readers that will undoubtedly send the new book to the top of the bestseller list. An opportunity to read more work from a legendary author is not one to be wasted, they might say. Perhaps this different portrayal of Finch adds to the complexity and realism of his character. Perhaps it will just be read as a separate story. Maybe I’m unfairly being a downer. Free flow of information! Creativity belongs to us all! People are excited to read a book for goodness sake!
I can largely get behind that. It is troubling that the author of this book we’re all so excited to read never intended for us to read it. Yet, that’s not uncommon among creators, and not necessarily a reason why the world should never see it. Why the sick feeling in my stomach? Because this creator still deserves agency over her creations, and that agency appears to have been stripped by an attorney and a publisher looking to profit by taking advantage of an elderly woman’s mental state.
I’m not ready to support that. I’m not ready to read Go Set A Watchman, and I don’t know if I ever will.
I’d love to hear from you. If you’re planning to read the book, or have decided not to, please share why in the comments section.