So now what, HarperCollins? You surely believed that Harper Lee fans would be overjoyed when you announced this week you would publish the reclusive writer’s long-forgotten first novel, Go Set a Watchman, in July 2015. And some were, surely! But others were worried: Worried about whether Lee really wanted to release this book. Worried about a lawyer who, some neighbors think, is not treating Lee’s work the way she ought to. Worried about an interview with Lee’s editor Hugh Van Dusen, who appeared not to know where the book had come from or whether it had been, or would be, edited.
In response to these concerns, HarperCollins, you issued a second press release: “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions of [sic] Watchman,” Lee is said to have said. This second press release feels no more reassuring than the first—neither in the fact that, like the first, it conveyed Lee’s words via her lawyer, Tonja Carter, nor that those words were grammatically incorrect. At this point, the circumstances around the release of this novel are so sketchy, the rollout so tinny with false coincidence, that what HarperCollins needs to do is clear: Withdraw Watchman. Don’t publish the book at all.
“Increasingly blind and deaf,” according to many, Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 that forced her to move to an assisted living facility. Several months later, she sued her agent for stealing royalties from To Kill a Mockingbird, and, in 2011, declared that the biographer Marja Mills had penned an “unauthorized” book about her. (Mills insists she had Lee’s blessing and cooperation.) Lee’s protective older sister Alice died last year at the age of 103. And now, 60 years after stashing it in a box and stowing it away, the notoriously shy author decides to send an apparently unedited novel into the world?
On Wednesday, Connor Sheets reported in AL.com that multiple Monroeville acquaintances of Lee’s “believe her wishes for her career are not being respected.” Continues Sheets: “Tonja Carter has long represented Lee and has power of attorney over her affairs. But area residents who know the writer say that Carter has in recent years taken steps to keep her from seeing her friends and family, and become increasingly litigious on her behalf in a way that they do not believe Lee would have supported when she was younger and more alert.” One woman Sheets spoke to, Janet Sawyer, described Carter as “greedy,” a predatory presence who “isolated [Lee] from the world in order to manipulate her.”
When I emailed a HarperCollins publicist to ask if anyone at the publishing house had ever spoken to Lee directly about the new book, in person or over the telephone, she said no. When I asked her if HarperCollins had any concerns that the release of the book did not reflect Lee’s wishes, especially in light of the accusations against Carter, she said no. When I asked her how she was so certain, she did not reply.
Lee’s entire life testifies to how much she does not want this attention, and especially not from this novel: She’s stuck to the shadows. She sat on the manuscript for 60 years. And at this point, the only way HarperCollins can convince us otherwise is to commit a grave offense against Lee’s reticent soul, by dragging her into the spotlight so that she can express her views directly. That is not something an aging and crowd-shy hero of American letters should have to endure.
Put another way: Lee’s handlers have placed her fans in a morally compromised position no matter what. If the novel comes out with no clear and compelling indication that Lee wanted it published, buying it is wrong. That’s because decades of evidence suggest that Lee, in sound mind, would prefer to keep the manuscript in a box. (And if that surmise is incorrect, our reasonable doubts—created, primarily, by the curious way the publisher has conducted this announcement—will mean Watchman doesn’t get the pure reception it deserves.) Yet if the novel comes out with direct and public reassurance from Lee that she wants to share it with the world, what a shame. How costly such a gesture would be to this intensely private woman in the twilight of her life.
The only way Lee’s publisher can convince us that Lee wants Watchman unveiled, that is, is to force her to violate her own long-held principles and mutilate her carefully tended seclusion. With another author, one whose whole life wasn’t an argument against publicity, self-promotion, the careless release of half-baked writing, we might be willing to take a publisher’s word for it. But not this author, and not this story. So, HarperCollins, return the book to the storage room, shut the door, and revisit the question after Lee’s death, at which point the ripples from your clumsy disclosure will have lost some of their power to harm.