From the moment I heard about Harper Lee’s “new novel,” I wanted nothing to do with it. Besides the fact that To Kill A Mockingbird is an American classic and continues to intrigue new readers more than fifty years later, I have always been intrigued by the idea that Ms. Lee wrote it, saw what fame meant, and decided she wanted nothing to do with it. I have always thought that a significant part of the greatness of the story is that she never published again. I can respect that. Far too many creative people don’t know when to stop. Ms. Lee decided that her beginning would be her end. On some level, given the acclaim her first novel got, how could she have possibly topped it.
I still want nothing to do with the book. I think there are far too many questions about the “discovery” of the manuscript and the intentions of those who have pushed to publish it. And I believe Ms. Lee is in no state to actually be controlling any of this. The day before Go Set A Watchman was published, I read a piece in Bloomberg Business. As related in the article, somebody who had known Ms. Lee for years was concerned about whether publishing the book was something she really wanted to do. So this individual visited her in the nursing home where she now resides and asked her. Ms. Lee’s response was something along the lines of “Why would I write a book if I didn’t want to publish it.”
And, right there, I knew this isn’t really about her. For more than fifty years, she avoided publicity, avoided the idea of publishing again, avoided it all. And now we are to believe at the ripe age of 89, after having a stroke and suffering from numerous physical and mental infirmities, Ms. Lee is in control of this situation and wants to publish what she insisted didn’t even exist for all those years? I don’t think so. She is being taken advantage of. Here’s the Bloomberg piece. Read it and tell me you don’t have questions.
I just read this piece from the New York Times. Joe Nocera does a good job of connecting the dots that explain why there are so many questions about what is going on. But he misses out on one key dot. At the time of the book’s publication, Tonya Carter, the attorney who is doing this, wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal explaining her version of how the manuscript was discovered. Sadly, that piece is behind WSJ’s pay wall, so I can’t link directly to it. Here’s a summary.
What I recall from reading Ms. Carter’s WSJ piece was how it didn’t add up. Ms. Lee has a safe deposit box. Her literary agent (who, by the way, has a literary agent 50 years after publishing their one and only book?), Ms. Carter, and a Sotheby’s representative met to examine the contents of the safe deposit box. There were a number of things in there. Including the manuscript for Go Set A Watchman, and the original manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird (packed away in an envelope, apparently undisturbed all those years). According to Ms. Carter, these materials were reviewed and then placed back in the safe deposit box and then nothing happened for the next three years. Ms. Carter claims to have left the meeting early and she had no idea of any of the stuff that was in the safe deposit box until she went herself to look at the box in 2014. When she “discovered” the new book. That’s now been published.
Here’s where this all gets disconnected to me. She claims after discovering the manuscript for Go Set A Watchman, she put everything back in the safe deposit box without bothering to see what else was in it. Until just recently and, surprise, surprise, at the end of her WSJ piece she claims that there just may be a third book. And a fourth book. All lurking in that safe deposit box that nobody apparently looked at for fifty years and when they finally did in 2011, they didn’t bother looking at everything in it, and then again in 2014, Ms. Carter didn’t either.
Manuscripts aint small things. The idea that these individuals suddenly discovered all of this stuff bends the limits of credibility. I think Ms. Carter has known about them for a long time and has just been waiting for the right moment. I see no need to buy Go Set A Watchman or any other “Harper Lee” novel to benefit Ms. Carter. It pains me a little bit to reach this decision. I am intrigued by the descriptions of Atticus as portrayed in the new book. But I won’t go there. Harper Lee’s wishes, expressed for more than fifty years of her life should have been respected, instead of turned on their head to benefit the interests of a big-name publisher, the agents, and attorneys who will get the windfall.