The curious case of Harper Lee
Next week, the 'To Kill a Mockingbird' author will break her 55-year silence. But who is really behind the new book?
Published 10/07/2015 | 02:30
Last September, the British literary agent Andrew Nurnberg received a text message from a lawyer representing Harper Lee, the famously private author of a single, enduring book.
"Please call me urgently," it said. Lee had become Nurnberg's client a year earlier, after relations with her previous agent ended in a lawsuit. Because she has only ever written one novel - To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 - there wasn't much for an agent to do other than negotiate foreign rights.
When Tonja Carter's text message came, Nurnberg assumed the worst. But when he finally spoke to her, the news was not of Lee's death.
"I found another manuscript," she said. Nurnberg tells me he went silent. "It was the last thing that I would have ever expected," he says. "Of course we never thought there would be another book. Nobody did."
Go Set a Watchman, a book Harper Lee wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird, is due to be published worldwide on July 14, and the few people who have read it are protecting its content with gleeful ferocity.
In the US, two million copies have already been printed; in the UK and Commonwealth, the first print run is 700,000. It is the most pre-ordered book in its publishers' history, and the most pre-ordered book of the year on Amazon.
It's such an extreme phenomenon, in fact, that it almost sounds like a hoax.
I ask Go Set a Watchman's UK editor, Jason Arthur: If you had to invent an unearthed novel that would guarantee maximum sales and publicity, how high would this be on the list? He concedes that he couldn't think of a better contender, and says he once used to joke that if his small imprint fell on hard times, they could always rely on "Harper Lee's next novel".
Well, it's not a joke anymore. The typescript was found by Tonja Carter late last summer, in a safety deposit box kept by Lee's older sister, Alice. The manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird had been kept there for years, but no one had thought to look at it more closely.
When Carter began to leaf through it, she found another book attached to the back of that one: it contained many of the same characters - Scout and Atticus, of course - but they were older, and it was set in the late 50s, when it was written, rather than in the 30s. She went to see her friend and client, Nelle Harper Lee, and revealed what she'd found.
"It's called Go Tell a Watchman," Carter reportedly told her. Lee, apparently, didn't miss a beat. "You mean, Go SET a Watchman," she corrected her. (The line is a quote from the Bible - Isaiah 21:6.).
"I've started reading it," Carter went on. "It's a sequel to Mockingbird." "It's not a sequel," Lee replied. "It's the parent."
Her genealogical terminology was precise: though To Kill a Mockingbird has an earlier setting, it grew out of Go Set a Watchman. "God bless Alice," she said.
Her sister, who would live just a few months longer, had apparently protected the book, not forgotten it. Naturally, there has been some scepticism. Lee is deaf and nearly blind and has lived in sheltered accommodation since she had a stroke in 2007; is she really of sound enough mind to have granted permission for the book's publication?
The question may be immaterial - or merely sentimental - since Carter appears to have power of attorney. This fact worries some people even more.
Carter, a protegee and colleague of Alice Lee, took over the sisters' affairs a few years ago, when Alice could no longer do it herself. (Alice died last November, at the age of 103.) Carter has sued the local museum, sued Lee's former agent, and undermined an author who wrote a book about the Lee sisters - issuing a statement signed by Harper Lee saying she had never given permission.
According to that author, Marja Mills, Alice later apologised for the statement, and explained that "poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence".
Nevertheless, there are many who support Carter and her representation of Lee. Earlier this year, when Alabama state officials investigated allegations of "elder abuse", they declared them to be unfounded.
Diane McWhorter, a historian who knows both Carter and Lee, suggests that "Tonja would not do anything that Nelle would not want her to do". Mary McDonagh Murphy, who is releasing an updated version of her 2010 documentary about Lee, Hey Boo, concurs that Lee herself "isn't doing anything she doesn't want to do".
What can we know of Go Set a Watchman at this tantalising point? Jason Arthur suggests the book's content is, if anything, more controversial than the drama surrounding its publication.
"I think once this book is out there, people are going to be shocked," he says. "There will be those who'll say: you have spoiled Mockingbird for me."
The main concern appears to be the fate of - or the truth about - a cherished hero. To Kill a Mockingbird, a linchpin of 20th-century literature, has many subjects: childhood, racism, rape, reclusiveness, community, the American South. But at its core is the moral education of a young girl as she observes her exceptional father. The wise, funny, pared-down voice of Scout, is what carries the book. But its hero, really, is her father Atticus Finch, a lawyer who takes on the case of a black man accused of raping a poor white woman. Though the jury convicts his client, Atticus is revered in the black community - as he has been revered in American culture ever since.
That may be about to change. Go Set a Watchman takes place 20 years after Mockingbird. Scout is 26.
"Because it is seen through the eyes of an adult and not through the eyes of a child," Andrew Nurnberg explains, "things are much more nuanced. This was a very difficult time for people in the South, and people would veer from one position to another during those times of segregation."
Or, as Arthur puts it: "If you scratch under the surface, those you thought were progressive are less progressive than you might imagine." Oh dear, Atticus.
Harper Lee moved to New York from Alabama, in 1949. She had graduated from university but ditched law school with only one semester remaining.
Her father, of course, was a lawyer - the person on whom she based Atticus Finch - and so was Alice. In New York, Lee took a job as a ticket agent with an airline.
She lived on the Upper East Side in an apartment without hot water, wrote stories late at night and occasionally met up with other Southerners. Eventually, her childhood friend Truman Capote introduced her to some of his cosmopolitan connections.
He wrote to his friend, the songwriter Michael Brown, asking him to look after "a shy friend from Alabama". Brown and his wife, Joy, a former ballerina, took Lee under their wing. They recommended her to the husband-and-wife literary agents Annie Laurie Williams and Maurice Crain.
Maurice Crain took her on, on the basis of five short stories. It's thought that at least one went on to become a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird; but none of them was ever published, and they haven't been found since.
That year, Lee spent Christmas in New York with the Browns. Lodged between the branches of the Christmas tree was an envelope with a note in it. "Dear Nelle," it read, "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."
Lee got to work straight away. By January 14, 1957, she had delivered the first 50 pages of a novel. The entire novel was delivered in 50-page batches with a regularity so precise that the system can only have been imposed by the author on herself.
The complete manuscript of 293 pages was in the agency's possession by the end of February. Crain worked on it with her for months, and sent it out to 10 publishers who turned it down. But one publisher was interested: JB Lippincott, a family-run firm that had been based in Philadelphia.
Lippincott - which had a New York office at 521 Fifth Avenue - mainly published medical manuals, history textbooks and reading primers. Nevertheless, they had what one former employee describes as a "tiny and terrific" trade division, which was responsible for children's books, biographies and the odd novel. There was only one female editor, and she saw something in Lee's manuscript.
Tay Hohoff was physically small but had a vibrant presence. Then 58, she was fearsome and exacting. Deborah Owen, the retired literary agent, went to work at Lippincott straight out of secretarial school. She likens Hohoff to Edith Piaf: "She smoked, and drank dry martinis at lunch." She was tough, Owen says, "and an outstanding editor".
Lee visited the Lippincott offices that summer in 1957. But they didn't accept her book straight away. Crain's records reveal that Hohoff saw a new draft of Go Set A Watchman in July, and that it was revised again in August.
Finally, in mid-October, Lippincott signed a contract. What followed was, in Lee's own words, "a long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again".
For the next two years, in New York and Alabama, where Lee often returned to care for her father, she and Hohoff worked on the novel.
The book's title changed from Go Set a Watchman to Atticus to To Kill a Mockingbird. The author's name changed, too, as Lee decided to drop Nelle. It's still not clear how many different books were written in the process of arriving at what Hohoff called "its final triumphant metamorphosis".
It's said they planned to publish To Kill a Mockingbird first, and the book set in a later period later, possibly with a bridging novel in between.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about race, and it's easy to think, in retrospect, that Lee took on that topic when everyone was talking about it. But the truth is that her position was exceptional, risky, and far ahead of its time.
When Lee celebrated Christmas with the Browns, the year-long bus boycott led by Martin Luther King across her home state had only just ended. Though the Supreme Court ruled as a result that the segregation of buses was unconstitutional, that decision was followed by extreme racial violence.
White Alabamans who opposed segregation were in severe danger: just four days before Lee delivered the first pages of her manuscript to Crain, five black churches and the home of a liberal white pastor had been bombed. And yet Lee's views were clear.
Around that time, she wrote to a friend that she had turned down a date with a Presbyterian minister, because, "I don't trust myself to keep my mouth shut... it will get out all over Monroeville that I am a member of the NAACP, which God forbid."
Was that a joke, or was she really a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People?
"I can't believe she had the courage to join," says Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home, about the civil rights movement in Alabama, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. "That's a strong position to take. It would mean you didn't care about social ostracism."
In McWhorter's view, To Kill a Mockingbird is itself so "daring" - written as it was by a white Southerner - as to be "an act of protest".
Which begs the question: Was Go Set a Watchman considered too politically explosive at the time it was written? Andrew Nurnberg suggests that had Go Set a Watchman been published then, "it would have been very divisive. Without a doubt."
And what of Harper Lee's wit? Boaty Boatwright, an influential film agent who cast the children in Bob Mulligan's 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, tells me that Lee is "one of the funniest people in the world".
That year, with the film about to open, a reporter asked Lee how it was likely to be received in the South. "I wondered the same thing when the book was published," she replied. "But the publisher said not to worry, because no one can read down there."
Lee stopped giving interviews a year later.
The 'on dit' at Lippincott was that she only had one book in her," Deborah Owen recalls. Certainly, Lee said she hoped to write "several novels", but even the planned books were, in a way, iterations of the same one: a long-term chronicle of, in her own words, "small-town middle-class southern life" as it disappeared.
"There are people who write, but I think they're quite different from people who must write," Lee once said. She placed herself in the latter category.
It seems improbable that someone who always wrote for herself would stop when she began to spend more time in her own company. Sadly, the question of whether Harper Lee has been writing these past 55 years is irrelevant, because her work since To Kill a Mockingbird is a party to which no one else is invited.
But I would be surprised if Go Set a Watchman is the last we hear of her. We know there is correspondence; we know there are other papers. We don't know whether she will allow any of it to be published or ask that it be destroyed.
Last month, a mere six letters from Lee to her close friends went up for sale at Christie's, and failed to meet their reserve price when the bidding ended at $90,000. The estimate was high, but their withdrawal seemed to be about more than just the sum. Why should Lee's private words change hands for money, in her lifetime? It was as if her ghost had arrived early, rendering those words invisible, or haunting them into silence. (© The Daily Telegraph)
'Go Set a Watchman' by Harper Lee is published on July 14.