“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for”

Photo via The LIFE Images Collection/Getty/Donald Uhrbrock

Photo via The LIFE Images Collection/Getty/Donald Uhrbrock

When news broke that a second novel by Harper Lee not only existed but would be published this year by HarperCollins, the internet flooded with speculation. Excitement at the prospect of new work from a writer who’d always insisted that one book was all she would publish quickly swung to skepticism about how it was discovered.

The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, the Washington Post and others rushed to report the initial news, while sites like Jezebel and The Toast urged caution, expressing fears that Harper Lee, at the age of 88, could have been manipulated by people who didn’t have her best interests in mind. Wasn’t it her lawyer who allowed her to sign away the To Kill A Mockingbird copyright? they asked. How is it, others wondered, that this news came only three months after her sister Alice, her longtime protector & advocate, had passed away? Why had none of the scholars who have studied TKAM ever hinted at the possibility that the Watchman manuscript might still exist? Had anyone from HarperCollins spoken directly to Harper Lee? What about reports that she was “profoundly deaf,” mostly blind, and wheelchair-bound after a 2007 stroke? Was she lucid enough to approve the book’s publication—and if so, why now, after 55 years of insisting that TKAM was the only book she’d ever publish? Had she written the statement that HarperCollins released herself, or had she dictated it to someone? Whom were we to believe, when the woman in question has always guarded her privacy above all else? How could we trust Lee’s judgment, when we knew she been duped once before?

In the days after the initial announcement of the book, more answers arrived, and it became clear that Harper Lee was in control. Lee’s lawyer, Tanja Carter, broke her silence to tell the New York Times that Lee was “extremely hurt and humiliated” by the speculation. Carter told the Times that Lee is “a very strong, independent, and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long lost novel. Instead, she is having to defend her own credibility and decision making.”

Carter’s defense of Lee points exactly to what struck me about this particular literary “controversy”— the author in question has always been known as quietly fierce, intellectual, and private about her personal life. At what point, and why, did we begin to assume that Harper Lee wasn’t making the decisions about her own life and work?

In part, that assumption was predicated on various reports following the 2007 stroke referenced above. The stroke forced her to move from New York City, which she adored for the anonymity it afforded her, to an assisted living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, population 6,500. From there, it seems, all of us—lovers of TKAM, her fellow authors, general readers— collectively decided to shake our heads in pity, assume her brain had turned to mush, and forget about her, as we do with most elderly people once their physical or mental difficulties become too much for us to handle. No one bothered to ask, it seems, whether her health had improved or deteriorated between 2007 and 2015.

After the scrutiny of the past two weeks, we do know more. Based on interviews with and statements from the people who visit and interact with her on a regular basis, she reads every day using a large magnifying glass (due to macular degeneration) and is currently reading a biography of Queen Victoria released in October 2014. She hosts select visitors and converses with them about current events. Apparently she even does a killer C.S. Lewis impression. This does not sound like a person who needs our pity. This does not sound like a person who deserves to have reporters from across the nation invading her town, trying to sneak into her assisted living facility, and asking any citizen of the town they interact with to what degree they think Harper Lee has gone round the bend.

To be clear, I’m not disappointed in the urge to ask whether a beloved author was being taken advantage of for financial gain. I’m actually relieved we thought to ask. But after Harper Lee told us twice that she was happy to be publishing again, why didn’t we believe her? Once various people—both inside the publishing industry and outside of it—stepped forward and said on the record that they’d had multiple meetings with her, that she was quite lucid, that she was glad people felt the book was worthy of publication—then why is the exciting story of a long-lost novel manuscript by a beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning author still being referred to as a “controversy”?

Part of the difficulty is that Harper Lee has no interest in speaking to the public herself. She issues written statements released through her lawyer, who does not answer follow-up questions. When people want more details, they don’t have access to Lee and can’t get additional details from the one person allowed to speak on her behalf. I understand the initial caution and skepticism. But let’s take a step back.

This is Harper Lee. This is an author who stopped giving interviews in 1964. This is a person who was so overwhelmed with the press attention from To Kill A Mockingbird that she once described it as “just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected…like being hit over the head and knocked cold.” This is the female author who was asked, repeatedly, if maybe it wasn’t actually a man who’d written her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. And not just any man, they speculated, but Truman Capote, her dearest friend, a man whom she’d protected from childhood bullies, whom she’d helped build his masterpiece. This is the woman who told Oprah that while TKAM fans assumed Harper Lee was closest to the character of Scout, she actually saw herself as more like Boo Radley. Why on earth would we be surprised that Harper Lee would release brief statements through her lawyer and then instruct that person not to answer follow-up questions? Why on earth would we expect the lawyer of such a person to act like a Hollywood publicist, obligated to smooth over everyone’s concerns and address every question, no matter how ridiculous?

It’s ironic that questions have been raised about whether the one manipulating Lee for personal gain or authorizing false statements on her behalf might be her lawyer.  Tanja Carter took over protecting Lee’s interests when Harper’s sister Alice retired in 2011, before Alice passed away last year at the age of 103. Carter was mentored by Alice as a lawyer and hand-picked by the two sisters to take over those duties.

Harper Lee book coverAccording to Lee’s first statement, the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was discovered by Carter as she checked on the condition of the original TKAM manuscript, held “in a secure place” in Monroeville. When she asked Lee about the second novel, Lee had assumed it was lost over the years. In her statement, Lee said: “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.”

In response to questions, Andrew Nurnberg, Lee’s literary agent, released a statement on February 4 explaining that he’d met with Lee last autumn, after the manuscript was discovered, and again over two days in January. He described her “in great spirits” and “feisty.” AP quoted other publishing industry figures who vouched for Nurnberg’s character, calling him well-respected, honest, and trusted. Nurnberg followed up with further comments on February 5, dismissing allegations that Lee wasn’t well enough to make her own decisions. “This isn’t somebody with dementia who is being led up the garden path,” he said. He noted that Carter was “the most honest advocate” for Harper Lee, devoted to protecting her personal and professional interests. Lee also issued a second statement on February 5, in response to the onslaught of questions about how the book was discovered, in which she reiterated that she is “happy as hell” at the book’s discovery and future publication.

***

In recent years, Lee has been referred to as “litigious,” as if she were a cranky old woman shouting about kids on her lawn. However, it’s impossible to understand Lee—and why the public perceived her as weak—without understanding the history of recent legal battles related to To Kill A Mockingbird. Two lawsuits were initiated by Lee, arguably both a reaction to being conned by a person she’d trusted, a man named Samuel Pinkus. As this fantastic piece from Vanity Fair details—which is well worth your time—the maze of slimy characters, shadow corporations, family feuds, and other intrigue that eventually impacted Harper Lee and the copyright for TKAM are downright crazy—truly the stuff of fiction. Ultimately, Pinkus convinced Lee to sign over the TKAM copyright, which he later used to siphon money to himself.

Later, based on the events described in the Vanity Fair piece (seriously, go read it), Harper Lee eventually realized that Pinkus couldn’t be trusted. In 2011, fed up with his lack of response to her publishers’ inquiries, as well as his habit of showing up without warning and placing papers before her to sign, she finally ordered the staff at her assisted living facility to bar him from entering.

In January 2012, Carter demanded that Pinkus sign the copyright back over to Harper Lee. In 2013, Carter filed a lawsuit on Lee’s behalf against Pinkus, which made headlines around the globe with the news that Lee had been duped into signing away the copyright to the book and bilked out of an unknown amount of royalties. The same year, Carter filed a second lawsuit, this time against a museum in Monroeville that the suit accused of exploiting Lee’s fame without compensation. It was settled out of court. In a February 20 piece in The New Yorker, a museum board member said that feathers were ruffled because Carter chose to sue on Lee’s behalf, whereas her sister Alice would have taken a softer approach, asking the museum not sell certain items branded as TKAM. However, as a 2014 Vulture piece on Lee observed, “the case of Samuel Pinkus would make any writer paranoid.” If Carter and Lee couldn’t even control what tacky, idiotic pieces of merchandise the TKAM artwork was slapped onto in the author’s hometown, how would they have legal footing to battle it elsewhere, in situations that might be more exploitative?

There is one other supposed “controversy” related to Carter’s representation of Lee, concerning a biography of the Lee sisters written by a woman named Marja Mills, who’d moved to Monroeville and ended up living in the house next to them. In 2011, Harper Lee released two statements through Carter, stating in no uncertain terms that she did not want a book about her family published. Alice, whom historian Wayne Flynt (one of Harper’s regular visitors) believes was more amenable to the book, handwrote a letter of apology to Mills, which was used by Penguin to move publication forward.

Understanding what actually happened in the legal battles seems crucial to understanding the present Harper Lee. She’s not an old woman with dementia, childlike or easily duped—she’s a feisty old broad who has every right to publish whatever she wants, whenever she wants, without said publication being viewed as an invitation to violate her privacy. The “controversy” over Harper Lee is just as much about our culture’s assumptions about people of her age as it is about her gender. I can’t help but think that “Why would she publish another book if she doesn’t want us asking all these questions?” is roughly the equivalent of “why would a woman wear a short skirt if she doesn’t want me to comment on it?”

Despite the heightened first few days of speculation and questions about Lee’s involvement, fans are pre-ordering the book in droves. I can’t see the publication of this book as anything but gutsy. Lee has something to lose and nothing to gain with its publication. If people don’t think it’s as good as TKAM (which is practically guaranteed, considering the adoration millions of people have for the book), it could cement her legacy as a one and done author, a person who wrote one great book and couldn’t write another. She doesn’t need to publish this book. She doesn’t need the money, and she doesn’t want to do interviews or go on a speaking tour. That is what I love about her decision to go ahead and publish: it feels a little like Harper Lee is flashing double birds at us. She doesn’t care about reviews or her legacy as a famous author. She wrote something when she was young that she is still proud of and she’s willing to share it with us, critics be damned. If that’s not admirable, I don’t know what is.

6 Comments

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    Wow! Great piece, Melissa. I learned a lot from it. I agree that this whole controversy is overblown. Yeah, it’s good to wonder if one of our beloved authors is being taken advantage of, but once she and all her closest allies have told us she’s fine, we should believe that, at least until we get some better evidence to feel otherwise. I hope Harper Lee gets to live at least another twenty years and see her second book become a best seller. And I hope there’s some joy in that for her.

  • Brilliant!

    You summarized the whole issue so well: “But after Harper Lee told us twice that she was happy to be publishing again, why didn’t we believe her?” And of course, I can’t help but think if we’d see a male author as vulnerable and in need of protection as we do Lee.

    And I love having the ending image of “…Harper Lee is flashing double birds at us.” that is now in my head.

  • Casey says:

    Wow, great post, Melissa! I didn’t know about all the craziness detailed in the Vanity Fair article (which I just read), and it’s interesting that they use the same tactic to paint Harper Lee as a frail, easily duped woman. What’s the real explanation behind all the copyright shenanigans, I wonder. I also hadn’t heard the more recent statements from Lee’s lawyer, and I’m glad to know that she is, apparently, as feisty as ever.

    Here’s what I see as the real question though. Is the book good enough to be published? Sure, it may not stand up to TKAM’s legacy, but people will buy it no matter what, and I think HarperCollins knows that. But should they be publishing it in the first place? The NY Times article points out that “Go Set a Watchman would have been Ms. Lee’s literary debut, if her editor had not rejected it.” There has been no mention of edits being made to the work, so I assume it’s the same manuscript that was originally rejected. It’s totally possible that editor’s judgment was incorrect at the time, and several articles mention that Lee sent it to friends for their opinions before agreeing to publish it, but I find it hard to believe anyone’s going to tell Harper Lee that her novel isn’t up to snuff, particularly when it has familiar, beloved characters in it.
    And that’s the other thing—this rediscovered manuscript is essentially some sort of first draft for TKAM. I understand the interest in seeing where that story came from & how it developed, but I’m really wary of the way it’s already being marketed, i.e. another masterpiece from the great Harper Lee. In a lot of ways, I feel like that’s still a kind of exploitation on the part of the publisher, and even though Lee stands to benefit royalty-wise, I have my doubts whether anyone’s really been honest with her about the book’s literary merit.

  • Monet says:

    Melissa, Melissa, Melissa! I would read your grocery list. You captured every argument I heard flying around the interwebs and countered them all like you were just swatting flies. Also, the double bird, I totally agree. She’s brave and I hope I can be more like her one day.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Great job bringing these threads together. I hear what Casey’s saying, but I also wonder if the book has value (even if it isn’t great) just because Lee wrote it, just because it is connected to TKAM.

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    I’m with you on this, Sam. First, we have no idea whether this new book is good or not, and lots of editors reject books that go on to be important literary works in the eyes of other editors. Also, it’s true that some friends wouldn’t be honest about the quality of their pal’s work, but I suspect that someone like Harper Lee would have friends who would tell her frankly what they thought of her work. I would suspect that she knows which friends would be real with her about this and which ones wouldn’t. And yeah, even if this book is just mediocre, it’s a valuable part of American literary history simply because Harper Lee wrote it and it’s related to a book we love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *