Watchman: Was Harper Lee ‘Humbled and Amazed’ or Exploited?
In February 2015, Nelle Harper Lee stunned the literary world by announcing that she would be releasing for publication a second novel, Go Set a Watchman. The author stated in a press release that she was “humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.” Almost immediately, speculation began as to whether the decision had been an attempt by her lawyer and others to exploit the reputation of a vulnerable older woman who was in ill health and resided in an assisted living facility.
When Watchman was published in July 2015, the speculation turned to certainty in the minds of those who believe the novel portrays the iconic Atticus Finch not as the progressive lawyer who had eloquently defended a black man accused of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird but rather as a segregationist and, in the minds of many, a racist. Many were convinced that Harper Lee would not, of her own free will, publish a book that would so shatter the heroic status that Atticus Finch (who was modeled after her own father) enjoyed among most of the readers of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Those who suspect that Lee was one of the many older Americans who are exploited by their families, caregivers and trusted advisors question why the author would release this novel after refusing to publish anything for 55 years. During most of those years, Lee’s business affairs had been handled by her sister and lawyer, Alice Lee. In 2007, Harper Lee suffered a stroke that left her nearly blind and nearly deaf, and she moved to an assisted living facility.
In 2011, Alice Lee retired (at age 100), and Tonja Carter, a young lawyer in Alice Lee’s firm, took over the handling of Harper Lee’s estate. Soon after this “transfer of power,” the usually reclusive Lee became involved in a series of lawsuits and disputes that were spearheaded by Carter. Many who knew the author opined that such actions were not characteristic of her, particularly the suit in which she accused the small museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, of exploiting her name and fame without paying her compensation.
Alice Lee died in 2014. Less than three months later, Carter announced on behalf of Harper Lee that Carter had “found” the Watchman manuscript in a safe deposit box and that her client wished for the book to be published. Competing accounts indicated that the manuscript had not been fortuitously “found” in 2014 but rather discovered by Carter and two others in 2011.
Some speculated that Carter had purposely delayed acting on the manuscript until after Alice Lee’s death. The Alabama Securities Commission and Department of Human Resources received an anonymous report that Harper Lee was the victim of “elder abuse,” but upon investigation, it closed the case without taking any action.
HarperCollins Publishers sold over one million copies of Watchman in the first week of publication. Apparently no one at the publishing house ever spoke directly to Lee about her desire to have the manuscript published, but rather worked through Carter.
The mystery surrounding the publication of Watchman is a vivid example of the difficulty our society faces in discerning whether an individual of advancing age and decreasing mental and physical abilities is acting according to her own free will or is being exploited by others for their own profit.
There may be an entirely different side to the Watchman publication story. Supporters of Carter claim that she was Lee’s truest friend and would never do anything to hurt her. One of the author’s literary agents, Andrew Nurnberg, recounted that he had spoken to Lee about the book and reported that “she is both delighted and enthused that it will now be published.” In an interview with the New York Times, Carter reported that Lee was “hurt and humiliated” that she was being forced “to defend her own credibility and decision making.” Through her publisher, Lee issued a statement that she was “happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman.”
The true story behind Lee’s decision to publish Watchman may never be discovered. She died in February 2016. Ten days after her death, at the request of Carter, who had become the executor of Lee’s estate, the probate judge sealed the probate records so that the contents of her will cannot be publicly disclosed. We will never be able to “climb into the skin” of Harper Lee, which, according to Atticus Finch, is the only way “to really understand a person.”
Professor Mary Radford teaches in the areas of Wills, Trusts and Estates, and Elder Law. She has written numerous articles and books, including Georgia Guardianship and Conservatorship.