The book two million people have been waiting for is released today, but not without questions. Was Harper Lee, who so famously refused to ever discuss her Pulitzer-prize winning book To Kill a Mockingbird, coerced? Did someone use her age or near-blindness to trick her into publishing the sequel?
And if not, why did she decide to release Go Set a Watchman after all these years?
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and became an instant hit. However, Ms Lee, who’s real first name is Nelle, flat-out refused to talk about the novel. She said “no” to journalists for decades, “no” to Oprah Winfrey and “no” to the President when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As for whether she would write a follow-up book, the answer – you guessed in – was absolutely not.
As Caroline Overington writes in the Australian Women’s Weekly, “Everything that Harper Lee wanted to say about human beings – their kindness and their capacity for cruelty – she had already said in Mockingbird.”
Ms Lee was far from being a recluse, but she simply did not want to talk about her famous book. The townspeople of Monroeville, Alabama, on which the books’ location is based and where Ms Lee grew up and returned to ten years ago, know not to mention the word “mockingbird” in her presence.
Then, 55 years later, a surprise announcement that Ms Lee had written an earlier book, one set after the action of Mockingbird, in which Scout is a grown woman.
The discoverer of this buried – and forgotten? – manuscript was Ms Lee’s lawyer and family friend Tonja B Carter, who took it to HarperCollins and started the publishing sensation of the year.
To say that people were shocked is an understatement. Why would Harper Lee change her mind on something she had been adamant about for five decades.
Conspiracy theories swirled, mostly surrounding this lawyer who “appeared from nowhere” and managed to execute a complete about-face from the world’s most reticent author. The fact all this happened just a few months after the passing of Ms Lee’s fiercely protective older sister Alice made it seem quite sinister.
But Ms Carter, who has become as media-shy as her client, says she is an old family friend. She claims to have found the manuscript while cleaning up Ms Lee’s papers while acting as her lawyer.
Following the deal with HarperCollins, there have been further surprises. Despite being dead against the idea of e-book and e-readers, Ms Lee has agreed to release both books electronically. She has also started claiming copyright on her town’s annual performance of To Kill A Mockingbird, which has been running for years and in which she has shown no interest.
Ms Lee’s health has been an added concern. At 89, she is almost blind and partially deaf. And there have been a couple of incidents where her mental acuity has been called into question, including a sudden refusal to allow the publishing of a biography written over several years by a journalist, and randomly signing over the copyrights to Mockingbird to her former agent’s son-in-law for no fee (Ms Carter took him to court and regained the rights for her client).
There are more questions than answers, and it’s unlikely anyone except Ms Lee will know the full story. But the rumours were persistent enough to send representatives from HarperCollins scurrying to the nursing home in Monreoville where Ms Lee lives.
Susan Sandon, managing director of the UK office spent time with the author and released a statement saying she spent time with Ms Lee and “she is clearly delighted about the forthcoming publication”.
If that’s the case, then what made Ms Lee change her mind?
Is it possible she hated the manuscript? After all, it took her a long time to get Mockingbird right. Perhaps she only now in her later years realises it’s better to release it in its not-quite perfect state than to keep it locked in a drawer.
Maybe she didn’t want anyone to know that Atticus Finch was anything other than the perfect father depicted in Mockingbird? eEarly reports say he could even be described as racist – and it’s no secret the character was based on Ms Lee’s own father.
Maybe Ms Lee simply doesn’t have enough fight left in her to keep Watchman from being published. We’ll probably never know.
As Atticus Finch told Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
What so you think made Harper Lee change her mind on publishing Go Set a Watchman? Have you ever had a change of heart on something you felt passionately about for a long time?