James Scott Bell
The literary world was all abuzz this past week over the news that Harper Lee was releasing another novel. There was instant excitement on social media. The author of the enduring classic To Kill a Mockingbird was finally, over 50 years later, going to grace the world with another book!
It was a pleasant shock, as fans of Mockingbird had come to accept the fact that Harper Lee simply did not want to publish again. She lived in her small town and avoided publicity. Her protector in all this was her older sister, Alice, a lawyer.
It was only a day later that another side of this story began to seep out, the gist being that Harper Lee, now 88, was being exploited. That she’d had a stroke and was nearly blind, and was unable to fully understand what was going on.
Instead of euphoria, Mockingbird fans were now aghast. The new novel (titled Go Set a Watchman) was actually one Lee had written before Mockingbird, and she’d never allowed it to go to print. The timing of the announcement was suspicious, too, coming only months after Alice’s death at the age of 103.
Then the publisher, HarperCollins, issued a statement that claimed Harper Lee was “happy as hell” about the release.
On the book itself, there were some odd rumblings. It was reported it would not be edited, that it literally came out of a box in Alabama and was going to be in bookstores by July of this year. Would Harper Lee really have agreed to that?
You can get a good account of all the back and forth here.
Today I happen to be in South Carolina with Donald Maass and Chris Vogler, for the final session of the four-day Story Masters conference. On our last day with the students we go chapter by chapter through a novel to illustrate in practice what we’ve been teaching.
Our novel this year is To Kill a Mockingbird.
I’ve read the book half a dozen times now. I’m always finding new things that impress me. This last time the subtle humor of the narrator hit me more than ever. It’s a masterful touch, just the right tone to counterpoint the tragedy in the middle of the book.
Clearly, this was a novel that was labored over. There have been persistent rumors that Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote (upon whom the character of Dill is based) had a hand in the manuscript. Capote’s father once bragged that Capote wrote the whole thing. Alice Lee adamantly denied it, stating unequivocally that Capote wasn’t involved at all. There is evidence to suggest Capote’s motive for letting the rumor have legs was jealousy—Harper Lee received the Pulitzer Prize right out of the gate, and he never did. Lee and Capote had a famous split because of the latter’s increasingly destructive behavior.
So the weight of evidence seems to me to be this: Harper Lee alone wrote To Kill a Mockingbirdand decided, at some point, that would be it for her. She has spent the last 55 years out of the public eye, choosing not to live a literary life.
Harper Lee came as close as anyone to writing the “Great American Novel.” And now this.
I’d like, therefore, to toss out some questions to the TKZ community:
Do you think Harper Lee really wants this book published?
Is the world “owed” a look at this book?
What about after Harper Lee’s death? Would that make a difference? (There are reportedly other J. D. Salinger novels that might be released, something the notoriously reclusive author did not allow in his lifetime.)
What if the book is not well received? Will that harm Harper Lee’s reputation? Does that matter to anyone?