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.