Newsmakers 2015: Harper Lee sets off a firestorm

The controversy and panic over Harper Lee’s first book in 55 years missed something remarkable


Donald Uhrbrock/Getty Images

The announcement last winter that Harper Lee, American letters’ most famous single-book author, was finally going to release a second novel instantly put Go Set a Watchman on its path to becoming the most newsworthy book of the year. It would hit bookstores in July, her publishers said, 55 years after the Pulitzer prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s celebrated novel of racial prejudice in Depression-era Alabama. “Beloved” hardly begins to describe Mockingbird: It sells a million copies yearly; its child narrator, Scout, is one of the most treasured characters in American fiction; in surveys, Americans often rank it as the most influential book in their lives after the Bible; and it is taught in three-quarters of the nation’s schools.

But doubts and outright suspicion quickly spread. Despite being set 20 years later, the sequel, in fact, was parent to the first book. That removed one set of worries from fans—Watchman was not something the 88-year-old writer had dashed off the year before—and replaced those worries with a new set: When Lee submitted Watchman for publication six decades ago, an editor claimed the high point was Scout’s childhood flashbacks, and urged Lee to rewrite it from that perspective. In publisher HarperCollins’s account, Lee followed the advice. Then the original manuscript was rediscovered last fall by a lawyer relatively new to Lee’s service, Tonja Carter, who had taken over from Lee’s sister and long-time legal adviser, Alice, who died at age 103 in November 2014. That alone fuelled speculation that Lee had been manipulated into releasing an amateurish work from which the best parts had already been strip-mined. “Is someone taking advantage of our national treasure?” Mia Farrow tweeted.

It didn’t help that the publisher had not talked to Lee—all negotiations had gone through Carter—or that the gossip in Monroeville, Ala., Lee’s hometown, was split between portraying the author, resident in an assisted-living facility since a 2007 stroke, as being as sharp as ever or showing signs of mental frailty. Lee, the only person who could set the record straight, was also slow to address the media, meaning rumours swirled for days before she squelched them.

Eventually, the literary world began to shift its attention to where Carter told the New York Times it should be: “on the gift Harper Lee is giving the world.” That comment immediately made the stakes clear. The fight over Watchman was a fight over legacy: Mockingbird is iconic, because Americans think it is good in every sense, as a work of art and as a statement of morality. Would its civil-rights-era liberalism, which now exists in a burnished glow, hold up in the days of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, black men dead at the hands of white police officers?

And then came the shock of the book itself. Watchman portrayed Atticus Finch—the moral centre of Mockingbird, the upright white lawyer who strove to save the unjustly accused black defendant—as an outright racist. He may have objected to lynching, but Finch had no problem with racial inequality. There were howls of protest from Mockingbird fans who could have done without that cruel light cast on their icon; middle-aged lawyers, some named Atticus, wrote letters of protest noting how the novel had inspired them. The legacy response, ironically enough, drowned out the more intriguing aspects of Watchman, including a young Lee’s proto-feminism, which cast a new light on Scout’s recollection of how her father’s defence (in Mockingbird) of a rape charge was pursued through a viciously sexist cross-examination of the victim. Watchman, Atticus notwithstanding, turned out to be a very good first draft after all.

Perhaps the reading public came to realize that; more likely, Americans—and Canadians—simply love Harper Lee through thick and thin. After a four-month run, often in the No. 1 spot, Go Set a Watchman is just beginning to disappear from North American bestseller lists. It will never equal Mockingbird—which also experienced a major uptick in sales in 2015—in staying power, if only because a racist Atticus will never become a staple of school curricula, but it is no affront to its author’s artistic legacy.

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