Can We Trust Harper Lee’s New Watchman? (Can She?)

Go Set a Watchman

UPDATE (3/15/15): Via Huffington Post, “On Thursday, the Alabama Securities Commission said it had closed its investigation into an unspecified complaint of elder abuse, first reported by The New York Times, tied to the publication of Lee’s second novel. ‘We made a determination that Ms. Lee, based on our interview with her, was aware that her book was going to be published,’ said Joseph Borg, who heads the commission. ‘She wanted it to be published. She made it quite clear she did.'” That’s good news!

UPDATE (3/12/15): The State of Alabama is investigating the allegations of elder abuse. My hope is that they’ll find that Harper Lee is doing well and has the mental capacity to consent to the publication of her second novel. According to the New York Times, one person familiar with the investigation has indicated that “Ms. Lee appeared capable of understanding questions and provided cogent answers to investigators.”

Against the advice of my lawyer, I’m going to talk about Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, which HarperCollins plans to release in July 2015 amid controversy, a word that may as well be synonymous with “Harper Lee” these days.

By “my lawyer,” I mean my husband, whose practice includes defamation cases. He was joking when he told me to avoid discussing Harper Lee. He thinks I’ve discussed her enough already on this blog. 😉

Joking aside, virtually everything we know about Lee comes from her lawyers or from the lawsuits she’s filed. In 2013, she sued her former agent, Samuel L. Pinkus, for breach of fiduciary duty (among other claims), which I wrote about in When Our Literary Heroes Become Victims.

Later that same year, Lee filed a questionable trademark application and then sued her hometown museum over unauthorized merchandise bearing the title of her book. The trademark was eventually granted when the museum agreed to withdraw its opposition to settle the lawsuit.

I don’t have a problem with Lee using the legal system to vindicate her rights. Indeed, I feel a tremendous affinity for her, given the impact To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) had on my life. As I said in We Were All Children Once (Even Lawyers), one of three posts I wrote while revisiting the middle grade novel as an adult: “Like many lawyers, I count this novel among the influences that eventually led me to law school and to my public interest legal career.”

It was an early literary experience that helped fashion my sense of justice. It gave me a greater understanding of our progress — and our remaining shortfalls — as a society in terms of racial equality.

Like many literary fans, I want to know more about the woman behind one of my favorite novels. However, the controversy surrounding Marja Mills’ “parasitic memoir” featuring Lee, The Mockingbird Next Door, dissuaded me from prying into Lee’s life by reading an unauthorized book. It was particularly disturbing when Lee released a statement in 2014 about Mills’ memoir that said: “any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”

As I wrote then, “Whatever the truth is about how [Ms. Mills] obtained access to Ms. Lee, even the possibility that Mills exploited Lee and her sister renders The Mockingbird Next Door unpalatable.”

Notably, all three of the above incidents revolved around allegations that someone or something had taken advantage of the octogenarian’s failing health. Now she’s back in the news again, and we’re supposed to believe that one of America’s most famously publicity-averse authors is “delighted” that a book she never tried to publish before is going to press.

As the story goes: Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before she wrote her Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Her editor at the time suggested she rewrite it from Scout’s viewpoint as a child, and the original manuscript (which features Scout as an adult) was lost.

Apparently, Lee has said that she was “surprised and delighted when [her] dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.” Lee’s lawyer had previously been her sister Alice, who died in November at age 103.

So her new lawyer “discovered” the half-century-old story out of the blue, and Lee was “delighted” to publish a book she had kept under wraps that whole time? That sounds a lot like the limelight-grabbing discoveries the Faulkner Estate kept making. It’s possible these fortuitous discoveries are entirely true, but it’s just hard to believe that no one ever found them before.

In Lee’s case, even if the story of Carter’s discovery is wholly accurate, there’s a question about whether Lee has really consented to its publication. It’s curious that she didn’t seek its publication closer to the time her first novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

Has Lee’s outlook on publicity changed? Or is it her mental competence that’s changed? As her lawsuits against Pinkus and others based on incompetence suggest, Lee’s ability to consent to publication at this stage in her life is suspicious. Multiple people in Monroeville who know her personally have raised allegations that Lee was manipulated into the decision.

In yet another statement this week via her lawyer (of course), Lee has now revealed that To Kill a Mockingbird was intended to be a trilogy, of which the middle book was never written — for now, at least. What’s the bet that someone connected to Lee will soon “stumble” on it?

Obviously, as only a casual observer of Lee’s public life, I don’t know what’s really going on. All I do know is that whatever it is, it’s fishy — and very, very sad.


  1. Reblogged. Thank you for bringing this out for an airing. Hopefully all of the reblogs will hep you reach a greater audience. Someone out there knows what’s really going on, and this may smoke him or her out of the woodwork!

      1. obviously the current situation with Harper Lee is very important to you. As a lawyer, have you considered petitioning the court to appoint a guardian ad litem to protect her interests? Action trumps speculation every time.

        1. Hey Jim, I responded to your comment (which is similar to this one) on the other post (thanks again for adding your perspective to this discussion):

          Just a few thoughts: It’s speculation because the subject of the concern is almost entirely hidden from view by her lawyer. I certainly don’t know if anything exploitative is happening here–I hope there isn’t—but there are reasons to wonder (from Lee’s incompetence-based allegations in previous lawsuits to her lawyer’s tight control of access to her). My hope is that Carter will show enough to allay concerns without making an invasive investigation necessary. It helps that there are a handful of people who have said they’ve spoken to Lee (thanks for the link to the NY Times article). My worry is that they’re connected to Carter too or don’t have the expertise to make an assessment about competence. Hopefully, I’m wrong!

  2. This whole ordeal makes me so sad. Lee has no doubt written one of the most beloved American classics, and the strange aura surrounding this publication definitely makes me anxious. I truly hope she has someone looking out for her. But I can honestly say, regardless of it all, she still wrote one of my favorite books and nothing will change that. I love your perspective on it though. I’m definitely going to use this post to help share why I’m not exactly jumping up and down for its release.

    1. Yes, the timing is very odd. Harper Lee had 50+ years to publish it herself! The idea that it’s been lost for all that time isn’t believable.

  3. The publication of this novel makes me feel so uncomfortable given the questions about Lee’s mental competence. The timing seems so suspicious.

  4. Something is very wrong here, for two reasons.

    First, for this story to be true, we have to believe that Alice — Harper Lee’s trusted confidant for decades — either misplaced the only copy of the book (in a way that it was nonetheless easily found after her death), or that she deliberately hid it from Harper. I don’t believe either for a moment.

    Second, according to Kerry Madden’s 2009 biography of Lee (see excerpt here ), “Go Set A Watchman” was the title of a novel Lee began working on at the urging of Maurice Crain. Once it was ready for review by the publisher, J.B. Lippincott, Crain renamed it “Atticus.” Lippincott did not offer her a contract, so she rewrote it, then turned it in again. Lippencott gave her an advance and assigned her an editor, Tay Hohoff. Lee wrote and re-wrote the book over the next two years with Hohoff’s help, often hating what she produced. There’s a famous story of Lee throwing the whole manuscript out the window and calling Hohoff in a panic. Eventually, she completed the work and renamed it “To Kill A Mockingbird.” You can read some of the story here:

    So what we’re getting, at best, is the first draft of some part of the story which Lee chose not to publish for decades, even though she obviously could have asked Alice, or Lippincott, or Crain, or Hohoff for a copy. But whaddayaknow, Lee has a mental decline, Alice dies, and suddenly her lawyer has a press release saying Lee changed her mind, but don’t you dare try to interview her about it.

    1. I read an interview article many years, maybe three or so, ago with Lee Harper where she said, ‘ She would not publish another book because she could not hope to reach above this one.’ She mentioned the original manuscript and that she changed to write in the point of view of a young girl…she changed the name to Scout, and a character was born. She saw some of the film being made. She further stated to the effect that she and Alice did not need the money and both agreed the manuscript would require a great deal of work to publish it….so they shelved it. In this article Lee also stated she withdrew from interviews because her interviews were quoted out of context and/or words were ‘put into her mouth’ and since she could not control what was printed, she decided to not do any interviews, etc. I, myself, am wiser now and wish I had either made a copy of the interview and/or logged where to find it….I think it was a New York Times interview, not sure.

      1. It would seem to me this book will be the same or very much like Mockingbird, that it will not be a new story….I’m anxious to read it and I believe avid readers will be able to ‘see’- ‘hear’ if someone else has had a hand in ‘writing the book’ other than Harper Lee.

        1. I certainly hope someone is looking out for Lee. Her family, relatives, heirs will probably have to file some documents in order to have proper investigation. The Alabama Securities Commission did an investigation based on “unspecified complaint of elder abuse, first reported by the New York Times”…This sounds ‘fishy’ to me….I thought they only investigated allegations submitted by specific person with some sort of ‘proof’… does Carter’s power reach this far…..I wouldn’t be surprised. Even Alice was suspicious and did not truss this attorney. I doubt Lee’s relatives have the money to hire an attorney and instigate an investigation. They probably do not have access to Lee, either. Hopefully, a good law firm will take on the case and take their fee from the estate. I read somewhere Lee has signed all monies form sale of this book go directly to her attorney….normal, I don’t think so. Did Lee know what she was signing???

  5. Thank you for looking into this. Like most people when I heard the news I was immediately excited but after the initial surprise wore off I too became a little skeptical. I hope Harper Lee’s reputation isn’t tarnished after all these years. More then that though, I hope someone is looking out for her. The media can be cruel and unforgiving.

  6. I’m glad you wrote about it. I’m definitely interested in seeing it, but I shared an article constantly with people who were praising the find and the publication, which highlighted the questionable timing of this “discovery” and release.

    1. Thanks, Geoff! I would’ve written about it earlier, but my husband really did dissuade me. He thought I was too angry to write about it. I have no idea whether Ms. Carter or someone else is exploiting Lee–maybe she really is “happy as hell” that this book is being published–but there are 1,001 reasons to think something fishy is going on here. I hope I’m wrong.

  7. As soon as I saw the headline about Lee’s new book, I thought of you 🙂 I’ve been waiting for this post!
    But of course, I didn’t think to doubt that the MS, or her desire to release it, was authentic. After reading your post, I agree with you, it looks fishy. At minimum, it seems like she may have been pressured into releasing it.
    How sad!
    The question is – will you buy it and read it?

    1. I would’ve written about it earlier, but my husband really did dissuade me. He thought I needed to calm down before I wrote about it. I really, really don’t trust Lee’s lawyer. Something is very fishy here. I hope I’m wrong.

      As for whether I’ll buy it and read it… well, I’ll answer that question in tomorrow’s post!

  8. I agree with you something strange is going on. Seems to me releasing this on the heels of Mockingbird would have been the obvious strategy if such a book had existed. It would be interesting to know who will benefit from her estate when she dies.

    1. I am so curious to know who Harper Lee’s heirs are. I wish someone would could assure us that she isn’t being exploited. It isn’t enough that Tonja Carter just says she isn’t.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s