The story of the new Harper Lee novel just gets sadder and sadder. Last week, we found out that HarperCollins was going to publish a new book, Go Set a Watchman. There was much excitement. But then it turned out that the novel was not new. It was a book that Lee wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird. Still, it was exciting that Lee had decided to allow any new fiction to be published. But the question now is whether Harper Lee really has decided to do this.
Harper Lee is about to turn 89 years old. Her eyesight and hearing are failing. And according to Michael Hiltzik, last year her older sister Alice died. Alice had always acted as Harper’s protector. Now she lives in an assisted care facility. It is in this context that there is suddenly a new Harper Lee novel being published.
Alice Lee was a lawyer, but she stopped practicing law about ten years ago (she lived to be over a hundred). One of her lawyers, Tonja Carter, took over the legal work for the Lees. She has been far more aggressive in protecting the estate. And no one thinks she has anything but good intentions. But that doesn’t mean that she is necessarily doing what Harper Lee wants — or at least what Harper Lee has wanted her whole career.
It was Carter who just happened to be going through Lee’s paper and just happened upon the book and just happened to note that it was really good. And let’s face it, it will be good for Carter to have the book published. I’m not sure exactly what Lee gets from it. But I’m sure that in Carter’s mind, this is a good thing for Lee. The book is, after all, what interested her publisher in the first place. It probably is good — maybe even great. It is a gift that Harper Lee can give to the world in her twilight years.
Still, it smacks of elder abuse. Sitting on great works of art is like sitting on great piles of cash. And we would be skeptical of a lawyer prying cash from an old person. I see no reason why we shouldn’t be skeptical of this. Because a second Harper Lee book is not just a work of art; it is millions of dollars.
Lee’s eyesight and hearing may be failing, but the word is that her mind is as sharp as ever. It would make me feel a whole lot better about this project if we got some word directly from her. The best we’ve received thus far are second and third hand claims about her delight about the publication of the book. I hope that’s true.