By Becca Shinn
Harper Lee’s career as a writer was as successful as it was short-lived. To date, Lee has published only one book: the Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Upon completing what many literary scholars believe to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Lee retreated into a quiet, solitary life away from the spotlight, never publishing another work. It has been over 50 years since she gave her last interview, despite requests from major news networks and television journalists, including Oprah Winfrey. Even in 2007, when Lee ventured out to the White House to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest honor for civilians, she declined to comment. She has remained virtually silent for five decades, almost entirely evading society’s curious inquiries.
That is, until two short weeks ago. On Feb. 3, HarperCollins Publishers announced the upcoming release of a supposedly “recently discovered” book by the now-88 year old Lee, entitled “Go Set a Watchman,” which will be released later this year with an initial print run of two million copies.
Lee’s representing attorney Tonja Carter allegedly discovered the manuscript for “Watchman” last summer when sorting through Lee’s belongings. Initially, Carter claims to have assumed it was an old copy of “Mockingbird,” unaware that Lee had ever written another novel. “I was so stunned,” Carter stated publicly upon the announcement of the release of “Watchman.” “At the time, I didn’t know if it was finished.” Originally composed before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” this newly discovered novel will feature many of the old characters, including a fully grown Scout Finch, who is returning from New York to her childhood home in Alabama to visit her father.
While millions of “Mockingbird” fans rejoice, others are suspicious of the mysterious novel’s journey into the public eye. Woven within this widespread celebration is a layer of skepticism regarding the timing of the novel’s release, which comes just a few short months after the death of Lee’s sister, Alice Lee. The 103-year-old sibling of Lee died last November after decades of shielding her younger sibling from incessant public attention. In 2011, Alice commented, “Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” These physical impairments Alice mentioned were revealed even more prominently during a lawsuit in 2013 which alleged that a former agent of Lee’s may have taken advantage of her by stealing some of her royalties.
Doubtful speculation that Lee may not be fully on board with the release of “Go Set a Watchman” is further fueled by the strange circumstances under which the manuscript was discovered. Any and all statements attributed to Lee in recent weeks have been issued entirely through her attorney or her foreign-rights agent, rather than Lee herself. Lee’s attorney, however, says she is upset by any rumors of exploitation.
“Nothing can describe how I feel. I am a lawyer, not a celebrity. The focus should be on the gift Harper Lee is giving the world.”
However, the reclusive author, despite a glaring absence from the media, did use her lawyer to release one stark statement: “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to ‘Watchman’,” the attorney stated on Lee’s behalf.
Though the circumstances regarding the novel’s release remain mystifying, what remains most important is for Lee’s fans to remember and appreciate the author’s profoundly beautiful work that we have all grown to know and love.
“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one which makes you think,” Lee once said many years ago in one of her rare interviews. This was precisely the kind of book Lee herself brilliantly composed, and her sequel, regardless of the conditions under which it has now come to public light, will undoubtedly be a work