The Shocking Conspiracy Behind Harper Lee’s Final Book

Everyone was abuzz when acclaimed author Harper Lee announced a second novel fifty-five years after the bestselling To Kill A Mockingbird. Read on to find out why people were questioned the publication.

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Harper Lee looking over the script for "To Kill A Mockingbird" with actor Gregory Peck.

When To Kill A Mockingbird came out in 1960, it was an instant success that rocketed its author, Harper Lee, to a prime seat in the spotlight. The book would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1961, be adapted into a feature film in 1962, and be translated into ten languages only a year after its publication.

Despite her debut’s success, Lee’s writing career became the phenomenon it was primed to become. Besides a few essays, two author profiles on a close friend, and a satirical bread recipe, Lee never published anything after Mockingbird. She did start many manuscripts, but Lee eventually dropped them, never satisfied with how they were shaping up.

Book cover for "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee.

Decades after the publicity surrounding Mockingbird had died down, and it seemed that Lee had successfully slipped into seclusion, many tried to figure out why Lee was adamant against writing again. The answer came in 2011 from a friend of Lee’s during an interview with Australia’s Daily Telegraph:

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.

Rev. Thomas Lane Butts

Lee’s Sudden Return

For decades, Lee maintained she would never write again, and except for a few legal disputes over some fraudulent uses of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee kept out of the public eye.

So it was to the surprise of everyone when, 55 years after the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, HarperCollins announced Harper Lee would be publishing a new novel set in the same universe as Mockingbird.

On February 3rd, 2015, HarperCollins published a press release announcing the publication of Lee’s latest work, Go Set a Watchman. The statement says that the publisher “is thrilled to announce it has acquired North American rights to a newly discovered novel by Harper Lee, beloved author of To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Book cover by "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee.

In the statement, a quote from Lee explains that she wrote Watchman in the 1950s as the first draft of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird. This draft was thought lost until her lawyer, Tonja Carter, found it amongst Lee’s belongings in 2014. 

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.

Harper Lee

An Anonymous Concern

Roughly a month after HarperCollins’ press release, Alabama authorities received an anonymous call. The caller was concerned that Lee was a victim of elder abuse and that she had been manipulated into selling and publishing her latest novel.

Even before this anonymous call came out, several reporters were questioning the circumstances surrounding Lee’s second book. NPR reported that HarperCollins announced Watchman only two and a half months after Lee’s sister, Alice, passed away. Marja Mills, former neighbor to the Lee sisters and the author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, wrote that Alice handled a majority of the business and publicity concerns surrounding Mockingbird. According to Mills, Alice had concerns that her sister was too trusting:

Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.

Book cover for "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee" by Marja Mills.

After suffering a stroke in 2007, Lee moved into an assisted living facility, where she would live for the remainder of her life. Charles Shields, who was writing a biography on Lee at the time, thought the sudden announcement was uncharacteristic of Lee:

I think she had made up her mind that she was grateful to have done so much with her first book and couldn’t see any advantage to bringing out another one. And now suddenly here she is — blind, 88 years old, in assisted living — telling us that she’s so pleased that her friends like it and it’s coming out.

However, friends of Lee found nothing wrong with Lee’s mental facilities or her coherency. Wayne Flynt and his wife told NPR that, when they visited Lee, she was reading and writing consistently, and could quote long passages from memory and discuss literature. Of the relationship between Lee and her agent, Flynt said there was no way to know what happened during that interaction, and until someone presented evidence of otherwise, he saw no reason to doubt the lawyer’s intentions with Lee.

In response to the controversy, Lee’s agent released a statement through HarperCollins expressing his surprise at the elder abuse allegations and reaffirming Lee’s excitement for Watchman.

By April 2015, the Alabama Securities Commission had closed its investigation into the complaint, having found no evidence that Lee was not in the right state of mind during their interviews with Lee and Lee’s social circle.

Watchman’s Mixed Reception

Go Set a Watchman officially came out on July 14th, 2015, and received mixed reviews. Most reviewers and readers accepted the findings of the Securities Commission’s investigation, but still had their concerns about Watchman’s publication.

Entertainment Weekly wrote that “Though Watchman has a few stunning passages, it reads, for the most part, like a sluggishly-paced first draft, replete with incongruities, bad dialogue, and underdeveloped characters, because it is a first draft — of Mockingbird.” 

Another reviewer for The Washington Post wrote a similar sentiment, saying, “Go Set a Watchman is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good, or even a finished book.”

Many reviewers felt that Watchman was not fully developed and lacked a plot, especially with the knowledge that Watchman was a first draft of what would become the literary sensation To Kill A Mockingbird.

Others, like author Ursula K. Le Guin, felt that Go Set A Watchman asked readers harder questions about race than Mockingbird ever did. Time Magazine called Watchman “a painful complication of Harper Lee’s beloved book and a confirmation that a novel read widely by schoolchildren is far more bitter than sweet.”

A Mystery Solved?

Lee died in her sleep in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, on February 19th, 2016. In the months between Go Set a Watchman’s release and her death, Lee and her agent maintained that Lee was fully involved in the process of publishing the novel. 

Although the claims of elder abuse and manipulation were declared unfounded, people still had their doubts about why Watchman landed in stores. After reading it, several readers thought it would have been better if Watchman had remained an untouched draft. Others, however, praise Lee’s brief return to the literary scene for the important, if not uncomfortable, insight her last work provides into the themes she introduced millions to in To Kill A Mockingbird.

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