Two startling revelations about long-hidden work by “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee have stunned readers awaiting Tuesday’s release of her new book, “Go Set a Watchman.”
Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, hinted Monday in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that the reclusive author may have written a third novel.
Carter wrote that she recently examined the contents of a safe-deposit box in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and saw the manuscript for “Watchman” lying “underneath a stack of a significant number of pages of another typed text.”
“Was it an earlier draft of ‘Watchman,’ or of ‘Mockingbird,’ or even, as early correspondence indicates it might be, a third book bridging the two? I don’t know,” Carter said. Experts, under direction from Lee, will be asked in the coming months to authenticate the pages, she said.
This disclosure comes on the heels of early reviews of “Watchman,” published over the weekend, indicating that “Mockingbird’s” principled lawyer Atticus Finch, who in that book defended a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, has developed racist views.
Set 20 years after “Mockingbird,” “Watchman” finds Scout Finch, now an adult called Jean-Louise, returning to her fictional Maycomb, Alabama, hometown from New York in the mid-1950s. She is dismayed to find that her father, Atticus, has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting and rails against desegregation.
The revised portrait of Atticus has horrified many fans of “Mockingbird,” as it had been left to their imaginations to continue the story.
In the 55 years since its release, the 1960 novel has become a staple of high school reading lists and one of the most beloved books in American literature. The Academy Award-winning 1962 film, with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, only added to its legacy.
Until this week, “Mockingbird” remained Lee’s only published novel.
“Go Set a Watchman” was actually written years before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee finished “Watchman” in 1957, but her editor suggested revising it several times until Lee used Scout Finch to tell the story from a child’s perspective.
It was Carter, Lee’s lawyer, who stumbled upon the manuscript in August. She had been going through Lee’s safe-deposit box after hearing her family talk about a possible second novel.
Carter, who took over Lee’s legal affairs after sister Alice Lee died in 2014, then negotiated with HarperCollins to publish “Watchman.”
Now 89, Lee resides in an assisted-living community in Alabama and is reported to be hard of hearing and nearly blind after a stroke in 2007.
These revelations can only boost anticipation for the new book’s official release. “Go Set a Watchman” is the top-selling book on Amazon, with “Mockingbird” at No. 2.
When the news broke in February that “Watchman” was being released, some people wondered whether Lee was capable of consenting to the publishing contract.
First, she had long been adamant that she would not publish another book, refusing to submit to pressure by fans who wanted more of Atticus, Scout and her older brother, Jem.
Second, Lee’s declining health was cited in her 2013 lawsuit against former agent Samuel Pinkus. The author alleged that Pinkus had her sign the copyright to “To Kill a Mockingbird” over to a company he controlled. The case was settled with Lee regaining rights to the book, but her complaint said she was incapable of signing documents because of macular degeneration, “which makes it difficult for her to read documents not printed in very large type.”
Some residents of Monroeville feared that Lee may have been manipulated into a publishing agreement for “Watchman” that she did not understand. An anonymous complaint of elder abuse was filed, leading to an investigation by the Alabama Securities Commission, which found that Lee wanted to publish the book.
Meanwhile, Lee has not spoken to the press since 1964, according to her literary agent and publisher.
While some label her as a recluse, documentary filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy said the author is simply a private person. Murphy recently updated her Emmy-winning 2012 documentary “Harper Lee: Hey, Boo,” which aired on PBS on Friday as “Harper Lee: American Masters.”
“She’s not a recluse. She just stopped talking to the press,” Murphy said in an interview with PBS. “She was an author who didn’t want to talk about being an author.”
As part of a global publicity campaign, the first chapter of “Watchman” is already public. It can be read, or heard in audio form with narration by actress Reese Witherspoon, at The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.
Could “Watchman” actually tarnish Lee’s legacy? HarperCollins is releasing the book unedited, a sign of faith in Lee’s talent, but not all readers have been impressed.
Susan Harris, editorial director of Words Without Borders, read the first chapter and was underwhelmed.
“Reportedly, Harper Lee asked that the manuscript not be edited, but respecting her wishes has not served her or the manuscript well,” Harris said.