Smells Like Denmark

02.04.15 10:50 AM ET

Harper Lee Promises a New Novel—or Does She?

More than half a century after she published her only novel, the author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has announced that she’ll publish a new book this summer. But is it really new—and is it is really her idea?

Now that we’ve heard that a new Harper Lee novel is coming next summer, the old saw about being careful what you wish for is probably running through the minds of a lot of her fans.

For decades after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, the question that occupied most readers’ minds was, when will she write another novel? As the years passed, the question became, will she write another novel? And then, as Lee moved into her 80s, the question changed again: why didn’t she ever write another novel?

Now, out of nowhere comes the news that indeed there will be at least one more book from Lee. Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, taking up the story of Scout and Atticus some 20 years after the time of the first book. Scout returns to Maycomb, Alabama from her home in New York City to settle unfinished business with her family and her town.

According to her publisher, the Watchman manuscript was written before Mockingbird. Lee’s editor at the time was especially taken with the flashbacks in the earlier version and asked her to fashion a novel out of Scout’s memories of childhood. “I was a first-time writer,” she said in a recent statement, “so I did as I was told.” Her revisions became To Kill a Mockingbird.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, Go Set a Watchman, never published, is the first draft of the book that’s sold more than 40 million copies.

Sadly, this latest Harper Lee news raises more questions than it answers. First, why now? A statement released over Lee’s signature would have us believe that the earlier version has just come to light, attached to a typescript of Mockingbird. “After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication,” Lee says in the statement. “I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

To anyone who has followed Lee’s story over the years, that sounds suspicious. She has always been fierce about her privacy, and late in life she’s become pretty litigious. But she’s never seemed anything less than cooly, superbly intelligent, and the notion that she just forgot about the existence of the earlier draft is ludicrous. If you have only ever written two books in your life—or, perhaps more accurately, two versions of the same book—the chance that you forgot one of them is beyond slim.

It’s hard to believe that Lee herself is behind any of this, or even that she endorses it. She’s had her whole life to publish this book, and she never did. Moreover, her recent appearances in the news have characterized her as someone’s victim: her agent was allegedly trying to take her copyright, or her hometown museum was accused of trading on her reputation and the reputation of her novel. When a reporter published a book that described her friendship with Lee and her sister, Alice, Lee vehemently denied that she had cooperated in any way with the reporter or her book.

In most of the stories written about Lee in the last five years—that is, ever since she suffered a stroke and moved into an assisted-living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama—she has been described as nearly blind and nearly deaf, and her only quotes have been delivered second-hand through family and friends. So it is impossible to know how much of what is happening now is actually her doing or how much of it may be the work of others who may or may not have her best interests at heart.

By that I don’t mean that anyone currently working or speaking for Lee is seeking to defraud her in any legal sense. But Lee is, according to her late sister, plainly vulnerable. In 2011, Alice [who died last year] wrote of her sister, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by any one in whom she has confidence.”

That same year Lee’s good friend the Rev. Thomas Lane Butts gave an interview in which he told the following story: “She once said to me when we were up late one night, sharing a bottle of scotch: 'You ever wonder why I never wrote anything else?' And I said, 'Well, along with a million other people, yes.'

"I espoused two or three ideas. I said maybe you didn't want to compete with yourself. She said, 'Bullshit. Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.’"

Maybe she did change her mind. Or maybe someone is putting words in her mouth. We may never know for sure. What we do know is that she has always stood on the side of those in no position to defend themselves, be they mockingbirds, Boo Radley, or Tom Robinson. It would be the cruelest irony should she wind up as defenseless and preyed upon as those for whom she has always been a champion.