Should We Hold the Horses on the Harper Lee Celebration?

Yesterday, the news broke that Harper Lee is publishing a sequel to her iconic To Kill a Mockingbird. The news was met with joyous reaction around the web, as well as the usual Twitter snark. But it didn’t take long for some questions to arise. The story of Harper Lee, an author who never attempted to publish a second novel, suddenly having a lost manuscript — that had never been talked about before — found in publishable form seems… a little sketchy. As Jezebel noted:

Harper Lee’s sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee’s estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s attorney since Alice Lee retired at the age of 100, acknowledges that the author — who was left forgetful and nearly blind and deaf after a stroke in 2007 — often doesn’t understand the contracts that she signs.

Lee is apparently not fully capable of making these decisions. Jezebel quotes a great piece by Michelle Dean on the legal and ethical issues around Harper Lee and her lawyer Tonja Carter: “Lee has a history of signing whatever’s put in front of her, apparently sometimes with Carter’s advice.”

An interview with Harper Lee’s editor did little to quash the debate, as the editor, Hugh Van Dusen, plead ignorance to most questions. He even admitted to not even talking to Lee about the book:

Has there been any direct contact about the book between Harper and HarperCollins? Or is it all down through intermediaries?
Are you asking if we’ve been in touch with her directly?

Specifically about the release of this book, yes.
I don’t know, but I don’t think so, only because she’s very deaf and going blind. So it’s difficult to give her a phone call, you know? I think we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say HarperCollins would like to do this and do that and get her permission. That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.

Mallory Ortberg dissected the interview at The Toast:

“Nobody’s told me.” “My understanding is.” You guys should have a meeting about this, probably! I don’t know, MAYBE it’s not the case that a bunch of publishers eager to capitalize on a hugely profitable name are taking advantage of a very elderly woman who lives in a nursing home and has diminished capacity. I hope that this is not the case! But if you are going to release another book of hers, maybe make sure that you are going through all of the appropriate steps!

As of now, it’s hard to understand what actually happened. Since the book was never really mentioned before, and since Harper Lee famously shied away from interviews, we have no public record of Lee’s feelings on the book’s possible publication. Is she being exploited? Or is the story of miraculous discovery true? Hopefully we’ll find out more information soon.

UPDATES (2/5):

The controversy has only grown in the last 24 hours. Many articles have come out questioning the publication, some even questioning if it constitutes “elder abuse.”

Despite the HarperCollins editor saying he hadn’t been in contact with Lee, publisher Jonathan Burman claims he has and that she was very excited about the book:

“She’s very much engaged in the process,” Burnham said. He hasn’t personally spoken to her, but he said her agent spent two days with her in January and reported back that she was “feisty,” “full of good spirits,” and reading voraciously.

For what it’s worth, Harper Lee — in a prepared statement — responded to all this controversy by saying, “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman.”

I took a much longer look at the controversy here.

Update (2/7)

Here’s the cover to the novel:


Update 2/09:

Salon tackles the question of elder abuse in the case of Harper Lee by talking to Robert Blancato, National Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition:

The part about this case that seems sort of odd at this point is that there has been apparently no direct communication from her. Everything seems to be going through the publisher or through the lawyer. They’re putting words that are attributed to her over something that’s very important, obviously, to her from an intellectual property perspective, which strikes people as a little odd, especially having come out of nowhere after so many years and coming after the person who had been her primary advisor passed on.

However, other statements make it seem more likely that Harper Lee does indeed want this published and that, rather than being elder abuse, it may be agism making people think Lee can’t possible know what she is doing. Harper Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, who succeeded her sister Alice Lee in the law firm, talked to the NY Times and maintained that she stumbled upon the lost manuscript while going through Lee’s papers and said Lee is “extremely hurt and humiliated” by claims she’s being tricked into publishing:

“She is a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long lost novel,” Ms. Carter said. “Instead, she is having to defend her own credibility and decision making.”

The Times also mentioned that two friends said they visited Lee in person and “attest to her excitement over the release of the novel.”

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