harper lee

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Why the new Harper Lee novel should raise your eyebrows

I don’t know if I first heard the news from the girl I RA’d with in college or the editor from The New Yorker. I was already late for work, unwilling to tear myself from my Twitter feed while I scrolled in my bed. The whole internet disappeared under an avalanche of literary celebration. Harper Lee will release her “long lost” novel Go Set a Watchman in July from HarperCollins. My immediate thought: “What if it’s bad?” My second thought: “This doesn’t seem quite right.”

My skepticism was quickly backed up by a barrage of articles. Jezebel quickly ran an effective eyebrow raise: “Be suspicious of the new Harper Lee novel.” (Gawker also ran an excellent accountof the maybe-unauthorized Harper Lee biography—and lawyer Tonja Carter’s shady involvement—over the summer.)

 

Here are the facts:

-Alice Lee, Harper's sister and lawyer (who she described as her personal Atticus) died last November.

-The “discoverer” of the novel is Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter. Under Carter's previous guidance, Lee signed over To Kill a Mockingbird’s copyright to agent Samuel Pinkus--a decision she later reversed, going on to sue Pinkus. 

-Lee suffered a stroke in 2007, and may not be of sound mind. Before her death, Alice warned that Lee "will sign anything put before her." 

-All quotes and press releases are fielded through Carter, meaning we haven’t heard Lee speak for herself. (And given her intensely private nature, we probably won’t.)

 

Pair this all with Lee’s notoriously privacy, diligent effort to stay in control of her own work (suing local for selling Mockingbird merchandise as recently as 2013), and has previous statements that no more writing should be published before her death. 

Watchman is a sequel to Mockingbird—though Lee actually wrote it before. My main beef is with the phrasing of “lost manuscript.” The idea conjures up a Da Vinci Code-style quest, a scroll abandoned in the catacombs, waiting to be discovered and freed by some heroic, Indiana Jones-esque publisher. Lawyer Carter “discovered” the manuscript, but hasn’t given any details about where it was hiding all these years. And HarperCollins is not a kindly old bookseller with Lee's best interests at heart. This is about capitalism in a struggling print industry. They want a best-seller--and Watchman is guaranteed. 

Harper Lee did not entirely forget the novel she wrote before Mockingbird. She didn’t bury her manuscript in a time capsule and suffer a bout of amnesia. There’s a possibility the manuscript itself was somehow lost—caught in a slush pile or relegated to a publisher’s bottom drawer. But the simplest, quickest logic behind Watchman being “lost” is this: Harper Lee did not want it to be published before her death.

Atticus Finch himself said, “Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.” Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen here.

 

Megan Kirby lives and writes in Chicago. She’s a regular books correspondent with The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, and she also works as a publicity assistant at Curbside Splendor Publishing.