The Neglected Personhood of American Icon Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee, 2015I was working in the bookstore Tuesday morning, when Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman went on sale. The book came with a strict on sale date, which means that no one, save a select few in the publisher’s offices and friendly reviewers, had seen it. Early that morning, bookstore employees all over North America and beyond cracked open boxes and began shelving hundreds of books. It was already a best-seller, based on pre-sales alone, and all signs pointed to it being a hot seller in-store, too.

So far, it’s doing just fine. My first five customers that morning were Harper fans, not just the curious or those who want to keep abreast of literary talk, but certified fans, wide-eyed and effusive. To Kill A Mockingbird is widely used in schools and beyond that, makes plenty of Best Of lists. It’s an institution. And its fans are passionate. Throughout the day, I asked everyone buying the book two questions: are you excited? do you think it’ll be good? I didn’t want to force the most important question on them  – do you think she actually authorized this? – after all, I had a job to do, but they got there just the same. Yes, these Harper Lee fans are excited and yes, so are the curious. Go Set A Watchman has been greeted with lukewarm reviews but the conversation, well, that’s something else entirely.

We are all curious and excited and in that fervor, the quality of the book is almost immaterial. Most people I talked to didn’t care if it was good or bad. More important to them was that they might learn more about Mockingbird, or that they could keep on top of the ongoing debate. The debate, that’s where all the action is: was Harper Lee, now deaf and mostly blind, living alone in an assisted living facility, truly a part of the process? Is she ok? Is it ok, moreover, to read this book, an initial rejected draft of the manuscript which would eventually become Mockingbird? Is it ok to enjoy it? To be excited for possible future books from Lee?

Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s lawyer, claims to have found the manuscript only a few years ago. Sotheby’s, though, claims that the manuscript was discovered as many as three years earlier, in Carter’s presence, when she would have had less power to push through publication. She says, by the way, that there is probably another manuscript in that safety deposit box. A third Harper Lee book! CNN reports that local lawyer and friend of the Lee sisters, Wayne Flint, says there is another finished manuscript, a fictionalized life account of a murderous Reverend. Such luck! Such cruelty.

“Funny how such a reclusive author suddenly wants everything published, including her shopping lists,” said one of my customers. It’s open season on the work of Harper Lee, though. Soon we’ll have a book of short stories, comprised of scribbles and limericks, her Unfinished Tales, complete with an introduction from one of a growing number of dear friends with leads on publishable material.

In 2013, Vanity Fair did a big feature investigation on the legal battle between Lee and her agent. This is the scope of what was at stake, before the publication of Watchman,

“Most literary agents would kill to have Nelle Harper Lee as a client. She published only one novel, but today, 53 years later, it remains a global blockbuster, having sold more than 30 million copies in 40 languages and still selling 750,000 copies a year, according to HarperCollins, the publisher. In one typical six-month period alone, ending December 2009, Lee earned $1,688,064.68 in royalties, according to court papers.”

Starting in 2007, Lee’s then agent Sam Pinkus, duped her out of royalties and eventually even her copyright to Mockingbird. According to Vanity Fair,

“‘Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see. He also knew that Harper Lee and her sister (and lawyer) relied on and trusted him. Pinkus abused that trust and took advantage of Harper Lee’s physical condition and years of trust built at M&O to engineer the assignment of her copyright in a document that did not even ensure her a contractual right to income.”

Once Lee signed over her copyright to Pinkus, whether with or without her knowledge, he had the authority to do with her book whatever he pleased. “Once the copyright is assigned, you stop being an agent and become the principal,” Eric Brown, a publishing-law attorney, told me. “This applies to all media. As the owner of the copyright in the book, you can make whatever deals you want. You are now Harper Lee.’”

This ordeal ended in 2012, when Tonja Carter, along with the help of a New York Intellectual Property lawyer, Gloria Phares, launched a lawsuit and Pinkus was forced out. Then, Lee firmly declined to comment through Carter, her lawyer since Alice Lee’s death. Now, Carter insists that Lee is talking–through her–and fully willing to have buried manuscripts published, and light to once again be shone on her very private life.

Harper Lee is 89. She receives full-time care from the employees of her assisted living facility and visits from friends looking, it seems, to cash in now, while the cashing is good. Her will can’t be revised after she’s dead, you know. Harper Lee is still alive, though, still a person with will and rights and desires. But she is an old person, of less value than those who are still productive, of less importance than those who can stand up for themselves. She is vulnerable, and like so many of our elderly folks, a potential cash cow. In hunting out more Lee books, we are riffling through her papers like hateful descendants going through their distant grandmother’s underwear drawer. Surely she’s got some good jewelry hidden away. It’ll be ours someday, anyway. No sense dragging our feet.

Then there is this twist: Harper Lee never sought out publication for these mystery manuscripts and evidently made no move to revise Watchman for publication. She was satisfied with leaving it behind, an insufficient draft that led to a much better completed novel. After the release and success of Mockingbird and the attendant fame, she sought solitude, not more attention. Now, she is the talk of the literary world again; now, when she can only speak through her lawyer and publisher. We honour Lee’s literary talents in seeking more of her work, and a deeper understanding of what has already been published. But do we honour Lee the person, the woman who is, yes, still alive? No, I think. This hunting after the crumbs of a lifetime of private writing and living, with Lee’s existence a mere impediment to the fulfillment of our desires. No, I don’t think we honour her.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.