For decades after the stunning debut of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee remained firm: She had no plans to publish a second novel. Instead, the famously private writer settled into an intentionally anonymous life split between New York City, where she had moved in 1949, and her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where her sister Alice worked at their father’s law firm. In 2007, after suffering a severe stroke, Lee moved back to Alabama and into an assisted-living facility. Alice—who was 15 years older than her sister—served as Lee’s caretaker as well as her legal counsel until several years ago. Known to neighbors as Ms. Alice and Ms. Nelle (Harper Lee’s first name is Nelle), the sisters were beloved fixtures in Monroeville, a community of some 6,000 people.
Given Lee’s insistence that she would never publish another work, many in that community were shocked—and suspicious—when HarperCollins announced in February 2015 that it would publish “Go Set a Watchman” this summer. By the time Alice retired from the family law firm in 2011 (shortly after turning 100), she had yielded control of much of Harper’s legal affairs to a younger partner, Tonja Carter. According to the press release announcing the new novel, it was Carter who had discovered the forgotten manuscript of the new novel by accident in August 2014, while searching for a typescript of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Lee began writing “Go Set a Watchman” in the mid- to late-1950s, when she was starting out in New York City and hoping to become a novelist. In the novel, a young woman named Jean Louise—a grown-up version of Scout, the inimitable heroine of “To Kill a Mockingbird”—returns home to the fictional town of Maycomb from New York City in order to care for her ailing father, Atticus. (Lee’s own father was also sick at the time.) According to records kept by Lee’s original literary agents in New York, she submitted a draft of “Go Set a Watchman” to publishers in 1957, and J. B. Lippincott and Company bought it for $1,000, with an option to publish another book. However, the editor she worked with advised Lee to revise the novel significantly, and move the heart of the action 20 years earlier, during the Great Depression. Lee took his advice and threw herself into the revision process, expanding on the flashbacks she had included throughout the first draft. The result was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.
Alice Lee was already quite infirm by August 2014, when Carter says she discovered the forgotten manuscript; she died in November, at the age of 103. Immediately after HarperCollins made its announcement, some questioned whether Alice would have approved the decision to publish “Go Set a Watchman,” and worried whether in her absence, the ailing 89-year-old Harper Lee had been manipulated into agreeing to publish the new work. In response to a complaint of possible elder abuse, investigators from the state of Alabama interviewed Lee at the assisted living facility where she lives. Confined to a wheelchair and suffering from severe hearing and vision problems, Lee confirmed that she had in fact agreed to publish “Watchman,” and appeared aware of the events surrounding its publication. The state closed its investigation in April, concluding there was no evidence of abuse or neglect.
In the final weeks—and even days—leading up to its publication on July 14, controversy has continued to swirl around the book. Last week, a competing version of events emerged suggesting that the manuscript actually resurfaced much earlier, at a meeting arranged by Lee’s former literary agent Samuel Pinkus at a bank in Monroeville. During that meeting, Justin Caldwell, a rare books expert from Sotheby’s auction house, examined what turned out to be the “Watchman” manuscript alongside a “Mockingbird” manuscript he had come to appraise for insurance purposes. As reported by the New York Times, Caldwell noticed that though the story was set in Maycomb, the characters were older, a fact he pointed out to Pinkus and Carter. While Carter admitted to being at the bank when the 2011 meeting took place, she says she wasn’t in the room when the “Watchman” manuscript was examined, and was never told of its existence; both Pinkus and Sotheby’s maintain she was there. (Carter, who later fired Pinkus, sued him on Lee’s behalf in 2013 to secure the rights to “Mockingbird,” which she accused him of duping Lee into transferring several years earlier; the case was settled out of court.)
“Go Set a Watchman” has perched atop bestseller lists for months, becoming the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins’ history and the most pre-ordered print title on Amazon.com since the final book in the “Harry Potter” series. Bookstores all over the country are planning special events, including read-a-thons, screenings of the 1962 movie version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and buffets of Southern food. In advance of the book’s release, various news outlets published an excerpt from the first chapter, which opens with Jean Louise (aka Scout) traveling home by train from New York City to Maycomb. Though Harper Lee will do no publicity herself to promote the novel, she did reportedly receive a copy at a special luncheon held in Monroeville last week, at a restaurant owned by Carter and her husband.