Questions remain about Harper Lee sequel


Annie Cohen, Deputy Opinion Editor

In the American literary canon, few books have been as enduringly successful as Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Following the release of this Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, Lee quietly entered into a life away from the spotlight, never to have any of her other writing published. She has not granted an interview in over 50 years. This is why it came as such a surprise when, on Feb. 3, HarperCollins Publishers announced the upcoming release of a “recently discovered” novel by Lee, titled “Go Set a Watchman.” While this initially appears to be an exciting new development, the novel’s mysterious road to publication raises many red flags.

This stunning revelation has been met with praise, but many question the timing. Lee is 88 years old and has been living in an Alabama assisted-living facility following a 2007 stroke that left her wheelchair-bound, largely deaf, blind and in a fragile mental state. The author’s impairments were further revealed during a 2013 lawsuit, which alleged that Lee had essentially been taken advantage of by an agent who was stealing her royalties.

Fueling speculation that Lee may not fully support the release of “Go Set a Watchman” is the fact that the manuscript was discovered under strange circumstances by Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, who has apparently persuaded the notoriously private author into publishing a new book after 55 years of retirement. It is also telling that the statements attributed to Lee in past days have been issued only through her lawyer or her foreign-rights agent, rather than Lee herself. Further, residents of Monroeville, Alabama, where Lee now resides, have expressed doubt that Lee truly wants this work to be published. The general consensus is that Carter, who wields power of attorney, is manipulating her elderly client.

Harper’s change of heart doesn’t make sense. While it may be nice to believe that Lee has changed her mind about this book, the mounting evidence suggests it is unlikely. Even if she did agree to have it published, it is a fact that, as an octogenarian stroke survivor, her judgement is impaired to some degree. A complete shift in an opinion that she has held for over half a century seems wholly implausible. Whatever the circumstances, “Go Set a Watchman,” which is slated for a July 14 release, will probably be a bestseller. But until she makes a statement, there is no evidence that Harper Lee supports the publication of this book. According to Newsweek, she has expressed the wish that no sequel be published until after her death, to avoid a media circus like the one which has erupted in the last few days. Her publishers should respect her wish.

A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 11 print edition. Email Annie Cohen at [email protected].