Friday, February 6, 2015

A New Novel by Harper Lee - Literary Prize, or Vulture's Prey?

Chicago Tribune photo by Terrence Antonio James
The news this week is about a “new” novel by Harper Lee. Last summer on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, I did a blog post in honor of the acclaimed Alabama author. When I heard the news of another novel by Ms. Lee, Go Set a Watchman, I was at once excited by it but also skeptical about the author’s wishes to have it published.

Here is a quote from the publisher's announcement:

Go Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus. She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.

Many news outlets, of course, have had a field day with the news. NPR noted on their website:

As second novels go, this one should prove a doozy. More than five decades after Harper Lee published her firstand, so far, only — novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee's publisher has announced that she plans to release a new one. The book, currently titled Go Set a Watchman, will be published July 14.

The Associated Press, which broke the news, reports that Lee actually finished the 304-page novel in the mid-1950s — before Mockingbird was published in 1960 — but Lee had decided to shelve the work at the time. Lee says she was surprised to stumble upon Watchman again last fall, after her friend and attorney Tonja Carter unearthed an old manuscript that had been attached to an original typescript of Mockingbird.

Some Were Skeptical

The problem I had, in the midst of my excitement, is that I know there have been questions in recent years about whether Ms. Lee has been manipulated into signing things by those in charge of her legal affairs. It turns out I am not the only one who has some concerns.

Birmingham journalist, Kyle Whitmire, grew up in Southwest Alabama near Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville. In his article for The Birmingham News he tells of his early class room experience where “Our teachers also taught us the rule. If by some chance you meet her, you may introduce yourself, and you may ask her about almost whatever you wanted - politics, the weather - but never the book.” Whitmire is skeptical about the release of a new novel by the author. “I want there to be another book,” he writes, “But the bucket brigade of publishers, agents and lawyers between her and the public need to give a complete account first of how this other book came to be found and published, or I won't read it. They have a lot of explaining to do. I'll respect Nelle Harper Lee's silence, as I was taught as a child. But not theirs.”

In another article from Real Time News from AL.com, Connor Sheets is equally skeptical:

The historical record seems to demonstrate that Lee did not want her other book published, as it remained a closely held secret for decades. Her sister, Alice Lee, died at the age of 103 in November after defending Lee's legacy and estate against circling vultures in the publishing industry who might have caught wind of her unpublished novel.

According to Ed Pilkington writing from Monroeville, the whole town has questions about the publication of the new book. In “Harper Lee book news leaves home town surprised, bemused and skeptical” Pilkington writes:

But with such meager access, many in the town are left wondering whether Lee has been manipulated. Many also wonder why so many strange things began to happen once Alice, her greatest friend and protector – her “Atticus in a skirt”, as she was said to have once called her – retired and then passed away.

A Measured View

If I may be allowed to have conflicted views, here is my thinking at the moment.  It may be that the publishers are the vultures who finally got through to make a little more money. On the other hand, since the novel was written prior to To Kill A Mockingbird, I can see literary value in it just to see what the author was thinking, what her writing was like and what she was focused on in the period leading up to TKAM. For those defending Harper Lee’s privacy and personal wishes, I can see that it is quite possible that the author may simply not have wanted her earlier writing made public, given that she was so reticent in all things regarding TKAM in spite of so much public interest throughout the years.

I want to read it. I’m not sure I want to buy it. I want to take a long look, I want to drink it in, but I don’t want to invade a respected author’s privacy. I want to walk through her wonderful house, as it were, but I don’t want to barge in uninvited.  I want Harper Lee to tell us everything, but I respect her right to tell us nothing more than what she has already said in her acclaimed novel. I want this information to be out there in public, just like the keepers of J.R.R. Tolkein’s estate released so many unpublished tales from Middle Earth to shed light on The Lord of the Rings. I do not want to think about how the keepers of Harper Lee’s estate may be pulling a fast one. 

But it is Harper Lee’s writing – it must be good. It is about Scout all grown up, and Atticus is there to. Surely there is great benefit in that. In the end, our life’s choices are like what I imagine Atticus Finch would advise, we walk with our eyes open to all the nuances of justice and injustice, then we do the thing that we can best live with as we carry on with our lives.



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