Harper Lee’s New Book: The Case for Optimism


Is the publication of Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird a multimillion-dollar scam? The publishing swindle of the century? At this point, if there really is a machine designed to extract large sums of wealth from Harper Lee, it must possess an array of moving parts. Publisher, editor, agent, attorney: all of these have spoken out to confirm Harper Lee’s willingness (and awareness), and so all must be complicit if the publication of Go Set a Watchman turns out to be an act of exploitation. So is it possible? I suppose. It’s true that Harper Lee has seen no shortage of carpetbaggers in her life.

But even though suspicions about Harper Lee’s awareness and willingness were raised in good faith, they were never detailed, and they rarely took a good look at the Pynchonesque swirl of coincidences and characters — good, bad, and shady — that have surrounded Harper Lee for decades. If they had, the case for suspicion itself would have been subject to suspicion. The deeper you dive into the reported facts, the more you realize that there is no center to the case of Harper Lee. And there is really only one constant: Harper Lee no longer talks to reporters.

She does, apparently, issue statements: “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman,” Lee said by way of her publisher yesterday. This is Lee’s second public endorsement of Go Set a Watchman, a novel that she apparently intended to be the third in a trilogy, making it a true sequel to her first published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. (The middle novel was reportedly never written.) If Lee’s first statement was met with suspicion — if some worried that her publisher fabricated it — it now appears that they have done so twice.

Also yesterday: Andrew Nurnberg, Harper Lee’s agent, stated that suspicions raised about Lee’s willingness to publish the novel are “total nonsense.” He also swept aside suggestions that Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, is manipulating the author into the arrangement: “[Lee’s] interests are paramount for Tonja in her personal and professional life. Tonja is devoted to that family, to Nelle and to Miss Alice. She visits her every day.”

At this point, I’m cautiously optimistic that Harper Lee wants this book to be published. To begin with, there are several literary, historical, and personal motivations that could explain her decision. And, as I said before, the claim that Lee is essentially blind, deaf, and bereft of her mental faculties is unverifiable. So, too, is the assertion that she is somehow being exploited by her attorney, Tonja Carter.

Is Harper Lee deaf and blind and dumb?

Every argument that Harper Lee is being exploited — by publisher, agent, lawyer, or all three — suggests that she is senile. But what is the evidence? For those of us who grew up in Southern towns — like Lee’s home, Monroeville, Alabama — a rumor mill churned by an assortment of self-proclaimed friends falls somewhat short of a reliable standard.

The most frequently cited statement concerning Harper Lee’s senility comes from another friend, one with at least some documented personal relationship with the family. His name is Reverend Thomas Lane Butts, and he’s now the Pastor Emeritus of the First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, where the Lee family reportedly attended church. By several accounts, including all of Lee’s unofficial biographies, Butts has known the family for decades. His statement concerning Lee’s physical and mental status comes from a long and complicated Vanity Fair article from 2013 (“To Steal a Mockingbird”) that details the attempt of Lee’s former agent, Samuel L. Pinkus, to steal the copyright for To Kill a Mockingbird and funnel all revenue through a constellation of shell companies.

In the article, writer Mark Seal quotes the good Reverend Butts on Harper Lee’s condition:

“She is paralyzed on the left side, profoundly deaf, 95 percent blind, and has very poor memory,” said Butts.

Now, Butts — who has a LinkedIn page, IMDb credits, and a published book (Tigers in the Dark) — is not himself entirely above gentle suspicion, given that he appears to have endorsed a biography of Lee that she herself did not. In any case, you don’t have to incriminate Butts to recognize that his statement is contradicted in Seal’s next sentence:

But, according to another longtime friend, the former University of Alabama English professor Claudia Durst Johnson, who recently spoke by phone to Lee through an attendant at the center, she is fully aware of her raging legal battle.

So, immediately undercutting the most cited statement concerning Harper Lee’s senility is another statement that says she is cogent enough to be “fully aware” of an incredibly complex legal battle (just try reading the Vanity Fair article).

Tonja Carter

Here’s another thing: in 2011, and again last year, Harper Lee issued statements against the publication of a biography that, again, she did not authorize (see Butts above). The case of Marja Mills’ The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee is complex, and it involves dueling letters and statements from both Harper Lee and her sister Alice, who apparently endorsed the biography. With the exception of Michelle Dean, whose piece on the unofficial biography is indispensable, few called Lee’s statements into question. Was her rejection of the biography the act of a senile person? Why didn’t the sisters agree on whether the biography should be authorized?

A letter from Alice Lee states that her protégée — Tonja Carter — wrote the statement (rejecting the biography) in Harper Lee’s name, then had her sign it, without first checking with her (Alice). But, crucially, it never calls into question Carter’s fidelity to the family’s interest. In fact, it rather suggests the opposite. “How are we going to get this corrected?” Carter apparently asked Alice. Frankly, the entire mess concerning the biographies, the more one looks at it, appears to be a dispute between sisters. Harper Lee, perhaps capriciously, decided that she didn’t want to authorize the biography. Alice Lee, who was more than 100 years old, wanted it to be a friendly summation of their lives.

On this basis, it’s unlikely that Carter is exploiting Lee. Even if she had gone renegade, even if Carter had rejected the biography on her own, what would she stand to gain? The publication of the book would lead to more sales of To Kill a Mockingbird, not less.

There is another argument that questions Carter’s fidelity to the family. I’ll defer, again, to Mark Seal:

According to Lee’s lawsuit, on April 11, 2011, two months after assigning his To Kill a Mockingbird copyright to Posner and PPI, Pinkus met with Harper Lee and Tonja Carter, who was a legal protégée of Alice Lee’s, and the agent presented them with a document to confirm that Lee had signed over her Mockingbird copyright to him. “Harper Lee signed the document … Ms. Carter notarized her signature. . . . Until that moment, neither Harper Lee or Harper Lee’s estate lawyer or Ms. Carter was aware of the 2007 Purported Assignment.”

In a nutshell: Samuel L. Pinkus, Lee’s former agent, successfully stole the copyright to Harper Lee’s books. If Lee was senile, this looks pretty bad for Carter, who notarized her signature and thus the transfer of the copyright.

On the other hand, Pinkus had successfully conned Harper Lee, senile or not, for years. The Lee family trusted Pinkus. When they finally figured out what he was up to, it was Tonja Carter who took control (from Alice Lee, who was, again, over 100 years old):

Carter obtained power of attorney over [Harper] Lee and fired Pinkus as her agent, despite his protestations that he had a signed agreement from the author that “assured his role as agent.” (Pinkus refused to present the agreement unless Lee signed a confidentiality agreement, which Lee refused to do, according to her lawsuit.)

My gut feeling here is that Tonja Carter was only partially in control of Lee’s legal affairs until this moment, when she took full control and jettisoned Pinkus, the most manipulative person in Harper Lee’s life, and regained her copyright. To my mind, Carter’s advocacy points more toward the correction of Lee’s problems than the exacerbation of them. Or, as Michelle Dean puts it:

There is something inarguably admirable in Carter’s refusal to fill in the blanks here. It could, after all, just be Carter’s own fierce loyalty to the way that, in better health, Harper Lee never wanted to have her private affairs trotted over by the press.

Why would Harper Lee publish now?

If we accept that Tonja Carter is not necessarily evil and that Harper Lee is just old and not senile, we’re still left with the question: why publish now?

Let’s get one thing straight: the book Go Set a Watchman has been a known entity for at least a decade. It’s discussed in an elliptical way several times in Harper Lee’s best unofficial biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. In fact, in the biography, there are three novels discussed: Go Set a Watchman, Atticus, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

After advice from agents and editors, Lee set aside Go Set a Watchman, which she indeed began writing before the other two books, and started working on Atticus, a book that became To Kill a Mockingbird. As much as anything else, the transition away from Watchman appears to have been one of pragmatism and practicality: Lee wanted to be a published author, and her editors and agents wanted, in the end, To Kill a Mockingbird. The book is not necessarily, as some have said on Twitter and elsewhere, the work of an apprentice.

To my mind, there is something infantilizing about the way we treat Harper Lee, especially with regard to To Kill a Mockingbird. The fact that the book is narrated by an adult Scout Finch, who is telling us the story of her childhood, is often lost on readers. (The book has become a kind of social justice Catcher in the Rye.) Instead of reading the adult Scout’s transposition of consciousness — her narration of her own childhood — as a deeply impressive act of imagination, we choose to read the book, whether we admit it or not, as a children’s story of maintained idealism. This baffled Lee, who found it curious that the book was taught to children.

Even this week — again, in an infantilizing way — Harper Lee’s editor and publisher have assured us that her new novel is “very adult.” Here is what I’m saying: if Lee really did find this novel in a drawer, it’s within the realm of possibility that she would want to publish it as a corrective. It may well have been the novel she wanted to publish all along. And now, too, we’re hearing from her agent that it was meant as part of a trilogy.

There is another, more personal explanation for why Harper Lee might want to publish Go Set a Watchman. We know – we’ve known for years — that the book concerns the relationship between an adult Scout and her father, Atticus, who is almost certainly the watchman of the title. We know, too, that Atticus is based (at least in part) on Harper Lee’s own father, A.C. Lee. But there is another, deeper coincidence. Like Atticus, A.C. Lee tragically lost a racially charged defense trial in Alabama; in fact, he would never try another case. And Lee tried the case when he was roughly 30 years old — precisely the age that Scout will be in Go Set a Watchman. With so many literary and personal parallels between father and daughter: it’s hard to imagine, as Harper Lee gets older, a more poignant remembrance of her father.

Finally, in the wake of Ferguson and other highly mediatized racial injustices of the last year, there are significant social and historic reasons why Lee might want to publish a book that looks back at the racial history of a fictional Southern town and the upbuilding Civil Rights movement. Although it was written in the 1950s, it’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Go Set a Watchman will tell us more about our predicament today.