Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most iconic novels in American literature, died last month in Monroeville, Alabama – the same town in which she was born 90 years earlier. This came as a surprise to me, as Go Set a Watchman – an alleged newly discovered novel by Lee – was published last summer by HarperCollins: the profiteers typically wait until an author is dead before sifting through the papers in search of saleable bits.
The story behind To Kill a Mockingbird is simple. Lee wanted to write a novel about race relations in the south. Her first attempt fell well short of the mark, but with the encouragement and guidance of her editor, the result was her Pulitzer Prize winning novel published in 1960.
Lee had the good sense to stop at a winner, as anything else she could have written would have paled in comparison with To Kill a Mockingbird. She got out of the writing business and refused to write another book. The number of interviews she granted since 1960 can be counted on one hand. She was done with all that.
The story behind Go Set a Watchman is also simple. It is one of greed. Alice Lee, who was Harper’s sister, housemate, confidante and attorney, acted as her protector until Alice’s death in 2014 at age 103. Tonja Carter, who had worked in Alice Lee’s law firm, brought the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman to HarperCollins and claimed to have discovered it shortly before Alice died.
Joe Nocera of The New York Times, who described Harper Lee as a “frail, hearing and sight impaired stroke victim living in a nursing home” at the time the decision to publish Go Set a Watchman was made, reported that “Carter had been sitting on the discovery of the manuscript since 2011, waiting for the moment when she, not Alice, would be in charge of Harper Lee’s affairs.”
As you may have guessed by now, Go Set a Watchman is Lee’s highly-imperfect first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird which was rejected by her publisher. This fact didn’t stop the marketing department at HarperCollins, though: “Harper Lee’s new novel . . . with many of your favorite characters from To Kill a Mockingbird”. The company reported that it sold more than a million copies in the first week.
Brilliant Books, an independent bookstore in Traverse City, Michigan, felt so bad about the whole affair that they offered refunds to their customers who purchased the book and felt duped: “It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate this as ‘Harper Lee’s New Novel’. This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved American classic.”
Writers frequently struggle not only with getting their work published, but destroying some of it as well. And there’s always something that escapes the flames. Six months from now Go Set a Watchman will be on the clearance sale tables. But To Kill a Mockingbird will continue to live in our collective consciousness. Rest easy, Scout.