Harper Lee: happy as hell
By ROZ DINEEN
“To Kill A Mockingbird comes from America laden with well-deserved praise” – this from the TLS of Friday October 28, 1960. “In situation and tone it has something in common with The Member of the Wedding though its development and atmosphere are more commonplace . . . the message [is] one that can stand repetition . . . ”.
A Pulitzer prize, about 40 million copies, countless exams papers and fifty-five years later, at Penguin Random House on a Tuesday afternoon, “A series of screams went up around the office”. Excited staff members having just heard that their company has acquired the UK and Commonwealth rights to Harper Lee’s next book, Go Set a Watchman.
The “new” novel was written in the 50s, before To Kill a Mockingbird; it features the same characters twenty years on. Lee thought she had lost it. Her lawyer found it “affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.” Screams.
All this is just a bit surprising in terms of literary biography. Lee is known as the recluse, who stopped talking to press in 1965 after finding the media attention surrounding Mockingbird overwhelming. The New York Times reported last year, “To those who chase her, who can’t leave well enough alone, she has developed a standard response to their proposed interviews: ‘Not just no, but hell no.’”
“It’s better to be silent,” she once told an audience, “than to be a fool.”
Gossip whirs. Her friend and lawyer Tonja Carter, who found the manuscript, is mentioned in reports along with the ill-defined smell of something funny going on here. Is Lee being used, or coerced? Since a stroke in 2007 she has become progressively blind and deaf. Her sister Alice, a lawyer who helped her manage her affairs, not to mention her considerable annual royalties, died in November. Alice wrote in 2011: "Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence".
In recent years Lee has brought charges against her former agent, Samuel Pinkus, claiming that in 2007 he "duped" her into assigning him the copyright to Mockingbird. In January 2012, Tonja Carter attempted to force Pinkus to assign the copyright back to Lee, which he did in April. Vanity Fair reported that, "Carter obtained power of attorney over Lee and fired Pinkus".
Meanwhile Lee's agent David Van Dusen said in an interview with Vulture earlier this week that: "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". Yet he denied that she was a "recluse".
Today we hear, presumably through Carter, that she is “alive and kicking and happy as hell”.
But, hell, isn’t it exhausting to always worry so much about what our great writers ate, and how they slept, and how and by whom they are used? What about the book?
In a statement Lee has said of Go Set a Watchman that “My editor [in the 50s], who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood [in it], persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” The result was Mockingbird. Van Dusen puts it like this: "her editor at the time at Lippincott, said to her this isn’t what you want to write; you want to write something about Scout when she was a girl". You might say, then, that Go Set a Watchman was rejected. Lee was asked to improve on it.
And yet this apparently unedited book will be, according to Waterstones, "the most sure-fire hit of the century”.
Lee gave a rare interview to Roy Newquist back in 1964 in which she spoke of her hopes and plans:
“Well, my objectives are very limited. I want to do the best I can with the talent God gave me. I hope to goodness that every novel I do gets better and better, not worse and worse. I would like, however, to do one thing, and I’ve never spoken much about it because it’s such a personal thing. I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world. I hope to do this in several novels – to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life . . . . In other words all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.”
Here is a sadness. Either Go Set a Watchman is dismissed and Lee loses her moniker — literature's greatest one-hit wonder; or Go Set a Watchman stands up to and matches Mockingbird, then we will miss these apparently unwritten or unfinished accounts of Southern life all the more. Unless, of course, there are yet more manuscripts to find, and Lee, no-longer reclusive, but “alive and kicking and happy as hell” will pull them into the light. Screams.