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The Suspicious Story Behind Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman.’

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This piece is the first in a three-part series we’ll be publishing this week on Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman.

When it was announced in February that a “new” Harper Lee novel had been “discovered,” there followed the expected gale of media giddiness, the widespread convulsions of joy, a gyrating and ejaculating all across the Web. Pulling up alongside the jubilant ones were the judicious ones, those who questioned how the publication of Lee’s new-old novel, Go Set a Watchman, came to pass: how the publicity-shyest author on earth, she who vowed never to publish another novel after her spirit was jolted by the galactic success of her debut, she who fled Manhattan for the asylum of her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, how this monastically private writer agreed—in her 89th year, post-stroke, confined to an assisted-living establishment—to bless the reading world with what was the first, failed draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. During the initial sortie of coverage in February, a Newsweek headline bellowed “Friends Say Harper Lee Was Manipulated,” but you didn’t need that deflating headline or any other because you already had those unignorable inner murmurs—they were your conscience saying that something is rotten in Monroeville.

On February 3, HarperCollins posted a press release that relayed how Ms. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, had recently “discovered the manuscript in a secure place where Ms. Lee keeps her archives.” There’s also a statement attributed to Ms. Lee that reads, in part: “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

Those crafty touches—“much thought and hesitation,” “my dear friend,” “people I trust”—are trying a tad too hard, wouldn’t you say? The spotlight-shunning Lee is “amazed” that she will once again be subjected to a freshet of attention, the very soaking she’d organized her life to avoid. The only thing amazing here is the expectation that literate people would be hoodwinked by attributed language that bears hallmarks of subterfuge. Another statement released by Carter in February has Ms. Lee saying: “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman”—and this from an author who was known to turn her back should you be unheeding enough to mention To Kill a Mockingbird in her presence, who at a soiree would rather sit on the rear porch and speak to a child than endure your effusions about her novel (see Charles Shields’s superb biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee).

In HarperCollins’s press release, Michael Morrison, whose title is the dizzying caravan President and Publisher of HarperCollins US General Books Group and Canada, believes, in lines that manage to be both tautological and cliché-sodden, that Watchman is “a brilliant book” and a “masterpiece” that “will be revered for generations to come.” Jonathan Burnham, Senior Vice President and Publisher of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, believes that Watchman “is a remarkable literary event,” although he obviously means publishing event: big difference. In early June, Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, the parent company of HarperCollins, dubbed Watchman a “fascinating, captivating, important book”—I bet he did—and then added: “It’s the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins history,” a non sequitur to anyone but a CEO of a global corporation. Listening to businessmen hold forth about literature constitutes a rare kind of comedy.

Harper Lee appears to have had only the most marginal input on the book that will bear her name. Jonathan Burnham announced that his company “had never spoken directly to Ms. Lee about the book and had communicated solely through her lawyer, Ms. Carter, and her literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg.” The lawyer/agent pas de deux: speaking solely to them and not once to the author of the book he was buying is rather like consulting the egrets while ignoring the hippo. Burnham also said that he was “completely confident” that Ms. Lee had consented to the publication of Watchman—of course he was. Consulting the novelist on which his outfit was about to make many millions of dollars “wasn’t necessary,” he said, and you see why the presidential wings of corporations continue to enjoy such glowing reputations. Writes the Times: “The statement Ms. Lee provided expressing her delight that the new novel will finally be published was delivered through her lawyer, Mr. Burnham said.” That lawyer again.

Will finally be published. Novelists don’t forget the larval stages of their books—they are usually bad enough to brand themselves onto memory. If Lee had wanted the world to hold Watchman, she had decades of good health in which to unearth it from whatever bottom drawer she’d buried it in, and if she’d thought it lost, all she had to do was look.

The February 3 article in the Times also quotes Marja Mills, friend and neighbor of the Lee sisters, commenting on Harper Lee’s ostensible consent to the publication of Watchman: “I have some concerns about statements that have been attributed to her.” Alice Lee, the counsel and caretaker who steadfastly bodyguarded her sister’s interests, and who’d died just three months before the announcement of Watchman—note the timing—wrote to Marja Mills in 2011 saying that, since her sister’s stroke in 2007, she “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” In March, The Atlantic Monthly quoted Alice Lee saying this about her sister in 2010: “She doesn’t know from one minute to the other what she’s told anybody. … She’s surprised at anything that she hears because she doesn’t remember anything that’s ever been said about it.”

On July 2, the Times compromised the official party line with ripe information about Watchman and Carter. In February, Carter had told the Times that she “was so stunned” by the discovery she’d just made, but, as the Times reported: 

[T]he discovery may have happened years earlier, in October 2011, when Justin Caldwell, a rare books expert from Sotheby’s auction house, flew to Alabama to meet with Ms. Carter and Samuel Pinkus, then Ms. Lee’s literary agent, to appraise a “Mockingbird” manuscript for insurance and other purposes.

That inspection happened in a bank—fitting when you consider the cash that was going to be made by what everyone saw in that vault.

Carter claims she didn’t see anything, was “sent from the room to run an errand before review of any of the materials occurred.” Both Pinkus and Caldwell affirm that Carter was indeed there when they found Watchman in 2011, according to the Times: “Ms. Carter was present in the safe-deposit room and … read the manuscript pages,” said Pinkus. HarperCollins dutifully responded by saying that the company believed Carter’s “account of stumbling onto the manuscript last year”—of course it does. It has millions of reasons to believe it. About the Sotheby’s visit in 2011, Carter has “declined to answer additional questions”—of course she has.

If Ms. Lee had in sound mind consented to the publication of Watchman, speculated the Times, it would mean “an abrupt turnaround for an author who had said she did not intend to publish another work and then, late in life, agreed to venture out with a book that had initially been dismissed as an ambitious but disjointed first draft.” Abrupt turnaround is one way to put it, I suppose, and that use of “late in life” might be courteous but it rather deemphasizes what we’re talking about here: an octogenarian about to turn nonagenarian, post-stroke, who, by her own sister’s admission, cannot see or hear. In April, functionaries in Alabama found Lee capable of making her own publishing decisions, but regarding the competence and incorruptibility of functionaries, you might want to call upon your own experience with them.

All this festiveness—the celebrity readings, the PBS American Masters documentary, the bookstore promotions, the most preordering on Amazon for 2015 so far—and it’s happening without, I think, the author’s ability to be festive, too, or even to understand that it’s happening. The epigraph of To Kill a Mockingbird by Charles Lamb, “Lawyers, I suppose, were once children,” takes on a somewhat different meaning now that we have that novel’s gestational version through what look like the duplicitous machinations of a lawyer, the dollar-sign salivating of the lawyer-agent-publisher trifecta. 

In a shady, bad-faith move, HarperCollins placed “the strictest of embargoes” on Watchman: With a few exceptions—cherry-picked, one guesses, for the safety of their pedestrianism—the publisher wouldn’t release advanced copies to the critical community. Strictest of embargoes? Are we talking about a book here, or plutonium? They’ll no doubt maintain that they didn’t want the book to leak online before publication, but no publisher wants any book to leak online before publication.

So as the lot of us waited, with the rest of the world, until the July 14 release date, there seemed little else to do but return to the novel upon which the current commotion depends. It hasn’t happened often, but when an American novel sells in excess of 40 million copies, when for 55 years it has been promiscuously bandied around our culture, when it’s become a beloved cultural institution, and you wish to reread the novel afresh, unhindered by the easy familiarity of that institution, then you somehow must shut out the choric approval while mustering a fairly potent state of amnesia. It helps if you’ve never seen the Oscar-earning film or the stage production, as I haven’t, and if you didn’t register your middle-school teacher’s well-meaning but puerile pronouncements, as I didn’t.

Just how good is To Kill a Mockingbird?

Check back later this week for the second and third part in our series on Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman.