What’s the story, Harper Lee?
by Felicia Cameron Leger
Harper Lee is one of a handful of people responsible for my becoming a writer. I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird as a kid and thinking: Wow, I want to tell stories like that! But as is sometimes the case with creators of masterpieces, Harper Lee never published another book. This unassuming author, after quietly writing a debut novel that went on to win a Pulitzer and change the world, retired her pen.
So, when news of a sequel was announced, naturally I was surprised. This coming July, more than fifty years after the publication of Mockingbird, HarperCollins will be releasing Go Set a Watchman.
Watchman is technically an early draft of Mockingbird. Lee had initially centered the story around an adult version of the beloved Scout character, but her publisher at the time rejected it in favor of the childhood flashback scenes. So now, all these years later, the forgotten manuscript has been found, and is being released in its original form. The only problem is… well, there are a lot of problems.
First of all, Harper Lee is famous for her reclusive lifestyle. Her crippling shyness has ushered her away from the limelight, repeatedly prompting her to decline invitations to speak in public. She is also a staunch perfectionist when it comes to her craft. Over the years she has attempted other novels, a series of starts and stops that her critical eye deemed unworthy of completion.
So why now? Why, after fifty years of silence, is Lee coming out of retirement with a manuscript that is really only an earlier draft of a greater work?
Speculation over this question has consumed the literary world ever since Watchman’s impending release was announced. There is growing sentiment that 88-year-old Lee was coerced into publication. Coincidentally, the manuscript resurfaced shortly after the death of her sister, Alice Lee, the author’s life-long advocate and fierce protector. Couple this with the fact that we haven’t heard word one about the book from the author, herself. All press releases have been funneled through her attorney. Even HarperCollins, the publishing house that landed the lucky deal, admits that Lee was not present during contract negotiations. In fact, no one from HarperCollins has even spoken to her at all.
Which begs the question: Is Harper Lee – who has significant visual and auditory impairment, and who suffered a stroke in 2007 that reportedly left her with short-term memory loss – being manipulated? We do know that her sister prompted her to sue her former agent in 2013 for duping her out of her Mockingbird copyright, an asset that still garners three million dollars a year in royalties. Now that Alice is no longer around to protect her interests, could this type of thing be happening again?
It’s a shame that such a novel, which would otherwise be greeted with open arms, should find itself tainted even before its release. I would love to think that Harper Lee is in complete control of the situation, that her handlers are honestly working on her behalf, and that she is thrilled to be finally publishing a second book. But her silence makes me wonder. Granted, Lee is private, but this kind of Howard Hughes behavior is extreme – even for her.
So, Ms Lee, if you truly are in support of this book, please let us hear it from your lips – just once – so we can celebrate with you. The world is dying to read your story, to be transported, once again, back to the Maycomb, Alabama world of Scout and Jem and Dill, to see their lives continue into adulthood. As your readers, we find ourselves on the brink of a wonderful journey that we never expected we’d be invited to take. But it’s a journey worth taking only if you are the one extending the invitation.Tags: Felicia Cameron Leger, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee, Storytelling, To Kill a Mockingbird