After Romeo & Juliet, Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird may be the most common staple of high school English class. The book has sold over 30 million copies since being published in 1960, but Lee has never released any other work. Until now.
In a statement, the publisher Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins, not related to Harper Lee) announced today that another Lee book, Go Set a Watchman, will be released July 14. Also: It’s a sequel to Mockingbird, featuring a twentysomething Scout Finch as a young woman returning home from New York. Or more appropriately, Mockingbird is actually a prequel, because as the Associated Press reports, Lee wrote Watchman first, before being convinced to instead write about Scout as a young girl. The book is being published without revisions, according to HarperCollins.
Those are the details that reports agree on. It’s a potential boon for educators, who have treasured and taught Mockingbird for decades. It’s the chance to see how the people of Maycomb developed, and how Scout matured; think of all the new connections to be made and the new reflections on race and civil rights that can be imbued in new generations. (And old ones.)
But here it gets tricky, because the circumstances of the publishing are ... curious.
Harper Lee had an older sister, Alice, and the latter doubled as a lawyer for the former. As Alice got older, she began handing off legal duties to a younger member of her firm, Tonja Carter.
In 2011, Penguin Books announced a new biography of Harper Lee written by former Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills. Mills had spent a great deal of time with both Lee sisters, and purportedly had the blessings of each for the biography.
After the Penguin announcement, though, Harper Lee issued a statement saying that she had never authorized a biography. Alice Lee, however, wrote a letter to Mills saying that Carter had written that statement out and had Harper Lee sign it. This wasn’t tough to accomplish, apparently; Harper Lee had suffered a debilitating stroke in 2007, and according to Alice’s letter, “Poor Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by any one in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.”
According to an investigation by Michelle Dean, at Gawker, Carter has been involved in other legal disputes involving Lee’s works that seem to have questionable authorization from Lee herself.
Harper Lee is now 88 years old. Alice Lee died in November. And now, less than three months later, a new book by the famously private and yet signature-happy Harper Lee is being announced. In Lee’s statement announcing Watchman, she was “so surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.” Harper Lee might have lost the transcript at some point, but if she’d wanted it published, it’s hard to believe she didn’t do so sometime in the five decades following Mockingbird.
Now we’re getting a new book based on one of the best-selling books of all time. As Madeleine Davies of Jezebel points out, it’s a bit suspicious.
Maybe there’s too much gossip in the details, too much defensiveness or public relations or forgetfulness, to grasp the full picture of what’s happening here. Maybe Harper Lee is in full control, and just relaxing the reins a little; after all, Alice was still alive when Lee allowed publishers to begin offering To Kill a Mockingbird as an ebook in July.
But books are a reflection of their authors; what if the book we get isn’t actually the book Harper Lee would write again given the chance? (She’s clearly not in a position to make edits.) What influence does the new book have on To Kill a Mockingbird? For 55 years, we have read and learned about these characters; we have seen them memorialized in cinema. As we prepare to find out what became of Atticus and Scout Finch, what if we don’t like it? And what if this is all happening in spite of what Harper Lee actually intended, in order for HarperCollins to sell more books?
To Kill a Mockingbird is, in part, a book about the harms of exploitation; how sad it would be if those caring for its author never learned that lesson.
Image: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.” Credit: TexasEagle/Flickr Creative Commons
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.