The Return of Harper Lee


Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 7.00.10 PMIt is every writer’s dream.  Just a few hours after the announcement of the publication date of your long-awaited second novel, it is already ranked #1 in sales.  That is what has happened today, with Go Set a Watchman.  Amazon already has it ranked #1 in sales.  I don’t mind admitting, I’ve already ordered my hard copy.  The estimated delivery date is between July 17 and July 21.   The first printing, is reported to be a paltry 2 million copies.  I wonder how many have sold – today.

The announcement this morning, of a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, left me in tears.  Like so many people, Harper Lee has not had an easy old age, dealing with death, a stroke and betrayal.  Somewhere, though, was another book, hidden from the world.  They say that Truman Capote hurt her, badly.  She referred to him, once as a psychopath. He probably was.  His treatment of her basically destroyed any possibility of her producing another novel.  There are some who say she is the one who did most of the work on In True Blood.  In so many ways her life has been almost haunted, and tragic.  She did very little writing after that, but did write a non-fiction series of magazine articles.

According to her editor, he did not even know the new book existed until Monday.

“…The version I was told was that the book was in either a safe deposit box or a bank vault, and it was wrapped in a manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird and nobody noticed it for all these years. I don’t know this for a fact, but one must imagine that Harper Lee — we call her Nelle — just never told anybody about the book and then forgot it existed. Her lawyer, Tonja Carter, who is also Nelle’s very close friend, was apparently looking through this safety deposit box and found [Go Set a Watchman]. I guess she then went to her friend said what it is this? Nelle said, and this is all public knowledge, that her editor at the time at Lippincott, the original publisher of To Kill a Mockingbird, said to her this isn’t what you want to write; you want to write something about Scout when she was a girl. So Nelle went back and wrote a new book: To Kill a Mockingbird. …”

A stroke in 2007 basically destroyed her short term memory.  She lives in an assisted living facility in Alabama.  Her sister, Alice, who took care of her, all those years, died at the age of 104, about a year ago.  She is basically blind and they say profoundly deaf. It is the great American tragedy.  There are some who think that her editor is over-stating her condition, to help her protect her beloved privacy.  It reminds me of Katherine Hepburn.  Her brother, at one time, told the world she was dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease and leave her alone.  I had the wonderful honor of becoming very good friends with her BFF, Frances Dee.  She told me there was nothing wrong with her friend, Kate, other than she wanted the world to leave hear alone.  This could be the case here.  I hope and pray it is.

“…Mockingbird’s author is now 88 years old. She spent much of her adult life in New York City, living with the kind of strategic privacy that tends to get one labelled as “reclusive.” Recently forced to sell her Upper East Side apartment, she now lives in an assisted-living facility back in Monroeville—a 2007 stroke, a friend says, having left her “95 percent blind, profoundly deaf,” and bound to a wheelchair. “Her short-term memory,” he says, “is completely shot, and poor in general.”

Perhaps he is overstating Lee’s condition. Perhaps not. But it’s worth considering, either way, something that is both inconvenient and also indicative of the expectations we place on the small cadre of people we have elevated to the status of Author: that Harper Lee, née and known to those close to her as Nelle, spent the majority of her life not wanting Go Set a Watchman to be published. Or, at least, she has spent the majority of her life telling the media that she didn’t want Go Set a Watchman to be published. (She has had many opportunities to do so: In 2006, The New York Times wrote a piece about her specifying “the three most frequently asked questions” associated with her name: “Is she dead? Is she gay? What ever happened to Book No. 2?”)…”

There is a story here, about the discovery of the novel, in a safety deposit box.  Harper Lee thought the novel was long gone, but her current attorney discovered it.  They say the discovery of the manuscript and her current attorney appears to be okay, but there are some who wonder what’s going on.  Before her sister died, she once said that Nelle’s mental state was such that she would sign anything put before her.  One individual who had seen her about a year and a half ago said she was definitely firing on all thrusters. The story is that Go Set a Watchman was written first, but was never published.

I suspect, the story behind the story is only going to get hotter. There are so many problems here. Something reeks of elder abuse. There is another problem. Nelle’s older sister, Alice, the attorney, told her that the original manuscript was missing. After Alice died, the manuscript was found in her safety deposit box. I know what I think. What I do know is that my heart goes out to this poor woman, one of the great literary icons. Someone treated her very badly in life. When you tell you sister that her original manuscript has gone missing, and it’s found after your death, in your safety deposit box… well…?