It has been well over half a century since Nelle Harper Lee first published To Kill A Mockingbird, which made waves in American literature. The book remains her sole published work. That is, until July.
Go Set A Watchman will be a sequel of sorts to its predecessor, and the hype is fanatical. Within a couple of days of its announcement, Go Set A Watchman reached No. 1 on Amazon in preorders.
If Harper’s next work meets fans’ lofty expectations, it will no doubt add another classic to Harper’s short but impressive resume.
Like all good classics, To Kill A Mockingbird was both revered and challenged in libraries across the nation, joining ranks with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, George Orwell’s 1984 and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (all staples in high school English curricula). Among its accolades are the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal for Freedom.
Of course, success is not success without at least a few conspiracy theories. Suspicions that Lee’s childhood friend and fellow writer Truman Capote ghosted Lee’s singular success were put to rest by a series of letters from Capote himself, as well as Lee’s notoriously righteous sister Alice Lee, who cited Capote’s jealousy as cause for the rumors.
Yet speculation still shrouds the since-reclusive Nelle, who once compared herself to Mockingbird’s antihero Boo Radley. The fiercely private Nelle currently lives in an assisted living facility, the result of a stroke in 2007 that left her bound to a wheelchair, as well as mostly blind and deaf. The stroke did not, according to a 2011 lawsuit over the copyright of Nelle’s novel, affect her mental capabilities.
Despite her declining health, Nelle continued to reject the spotlight, even barring her literary agent from the facilities. Alice, an attorney Nelle once described as “Atticus in a skirt,” remained her sister’s staunch defender.
Alice died in November. The manuscript for Watchman was discovered by Alice’s younger partner, Tonja Carter, and three months after Alice’s death, Nelle signed for her book to be published.
There’s plenty of reason to be suspicious. Due to her reclusive nature, Nelle’s communication thus far has been through Carter and a shield of official statements. Nelle’s unauthorized biographer, Charles J. Shields, has suggested the possibility of “an elderly woman who’s getting poor advice.”
Additionally, literary critics speculate over the quality of the book. Since Mockingbird is the only example of Lee’s writing, Watchman hype is mostly attributed to Lee’s significance as a literary figure and a subject of public adulation.
“I can’t but imagine it must be of historical interest rather than anything else, at this point,” a Cambridge professor said in an interview with the Guardian. That, or an opportunity to cash in on an old woman’s life work.
On the other hand, Carter worked as Alice’s partner for years before taking Alice’s place. A variety of reports say Nelle is lucid and as feisty as ever.
“This narrative of senility, exploitation of this helpless little old lady, is just hogwash. It’s just complete bunk,” an old friend of Carter’s said, adding that there is “no reason to question Tonja Carter’s integrity.”
There is a chance that Carter is carrying on Alice’s legacy and is truly defending Nelle’s best interest.
“She is a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long lost novel,” Carter said in a Times interview. “Instead, she is having to defend her own credibility and decision-making.”
But no matter how many articles you read, there’s no saying what Lee truly wants. Perhaps if she’d been more open to the public eye, we could’ve detected at least a sign, but alas, that’s just the kind of person Harper Lee is. In fact, it seems that the more you read about the author, the less you’re sure of anything about her. Maybe that’s the reason Watchman is so anticipated: reader thirst for something that will bring them closer to Nelle. Something that will clue them into the enigma that is Harper Lee. No doubt, come July, many will be just as just as confused as they were before.