When the news broke that Harper Lee had agreed to release a second novel that takes place in the same world as 1960’s Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill A Mockingbird, literary fans rejoiced. But an uneasy question has been raised: Is Lee capable of signing over the rights to the work at all?
On the surface, the promise of a second work from the reclusive, now 88-year-old author is an unprecedented excitement on par with the new J.D. Salinger material being released over the next five years, but the timing of the decision to publish has raised some eyebrows.
The new title, Go Set a Watchman will be released on July 14 by HarperCollins and is a sequel to the original book, though the manuscript was actually written before that of To Kill a Mockingbird. According to the New York Times, the story will follow Scout, the spunky protagonist of Lee’s famous work, as she returns to fictional Maycomb, Alabama to see her father Atticus Finch.
Lee’s work and privacy was ferociously protected by sister and attorney Alice Lee, who died this past November at the age of 103, and many have speculated that the sole protector of Harper Lee’s exploitation and the release of Go Set a Watchman left with her.
Harper Lee has lived in an assisted living home since 2007 after suffering a stroke, and Gawker’s Michelle Dean reported that she has grown increasingly blind and deaf through the years. The sisters worked together until 2011 when Alice retired to a home herself, and attorney Tonja Carter, who took over Alice Lee’s practice now handles Harper Lee’s affairs.
According to HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham, the existence of the manuscript was “unknown until recently, and its discovery is an extraordinary gift.” From a literary and financial standpoint this is certainly true, but Burnham assures The Associated Press that Lee is fully on board for the publication in a recent interview.
“I met with her last autumn and again over two days in January,” he explained. “She was in great spirits and increasingly excited at the prospect of this novel finally seeing the light of day.”
This may well be, but the timing of Alice Lee’s death with this announcement is still too much for many die-hard fans to ignore. Though the exact state of Harper Lee’s health is unknown, friend Dr. Thomas Lane Butts described her in 2011 as “profoundly deaf” and that her “short-term memory is completely shot, and poor in general.”
While more physically able and living in New York, Lee was extremely (and successfully) private with the help of her sister Alice. However, this level of security grew increasingly difficult to maintain as the sisters aged – Business Insider detailed Lee’s struggles and skepticism with the publishing industry after she was nearly robbed of the copyright to her most famous work.
In 2007, Lee’s former agent Samuel Pinkus worked with the author to sign the high-price copyright to To Kill a Mockingbird over to his company Veritas Media, Inc. Lee alleged that she had no recollection of ever signing the rights over, nor did Alice. The document, published in Business Insider, painted Alice Lee as nearly deaf and relying strictly on lip-reading by 2006, and Harper Lee in fragile condition herself.
“For over 15 years, she [Harper Lee] has suffered from increasingly serious deafness and, for 6-7 years, macular degeneration, which makes it difficult for her to read documents not printed in very large type.”
Though Tonja Carter was able to get the rights to the book back to Harper Lee in 2012, it’s yet another piece in the puzzle – why would the author suddenly be OK with releasing new material after years of resistance?
Lee, never one for the spotlight, has communicated exclusively through third parties for years and went so far as to disown a 2014 biography written on her by author Marja Mills as “unauthorized,” though there are records of her participation in the book’s development.
The public’s reception has been met with equal amounts of enthusiasm…
Harper Lee returns and there is joy throughout the land. I’ve ordered mine. http://t.co/egaiRh0xbX
— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) February 4, 2015
Is someone taking advantage of our national treasure, 88 year old Harper Lee?
— mia farrow (@MiaFarrow) February 4, 2015
In spite of growing volume on the potential of controversy, Go Set a Watchman is already the number one book on Amazon, with To Kill a Mockingbird sitting pretty at number three. To this day, her first novel continues to sell over a million copies annually and is a staple of school curriculums.
At a press conference in 1962 promoting the release of the Gregory Peck fueled Mockingbird film, Lee was asked how she felt about “her second novel.”
“I’m scared,” Harper Lee answered, according to the New York Times.
Over fifty years later, many fans are beginning to fear that the author who so famously wrote about a miscarriage of justice may be the victim of one herself. One thing is for sure – now that Go Set a Watchman is officially being released, this won’t be the last we hear of it.