For 50 years, critics and readers have wondered why Harper Lee never wrote a novel besides “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
It turns out she did.
The reclusive Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist announced Tuesday that in July she will publish “Go Set a Watchman,” a kind of sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The news electrified her fans and the publishing world, which long ago gave up hope of another novel from the beloved author.
Even more surprising than the announcement of the forthcoming book was the revelation that it had been written in the mid-1950s and then, apparently, forgotten.
The author explained in a statement that when she was just starting out, she wrote “Go Set a Watchman,” about a woman nicknamed Scout who returns home to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her father, Atticus. After reading the manuscript, her editor asked her to rewrite the story from the point of view of Scout as a child. “I was a first-time writer,” Lee said, “so I did as I was told.”
The result was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which has sold 40 million copies since it was published in 1960.
“I hadn’t realized it had survived,” Lee said of the manuscript, “so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. 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. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
Her publisher, HarperCollins, said the manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman” was found last fall “affixed to an original typescript of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”
HarperCollins plans to publish 2 million copies of the novel for release on July 14.
It’s all speculation at this point, of course, but authors’ unpublished drafts — though of considerable interest to scholars — are not always masterpieces. For instance, “new” books dribbled out of Ernest Hemingway’s estate for far too long. It’s possible that Lee’s original editor was right to stuff “Go Set a Watchman” in a drawer.
But as Scout says, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” And those folks are desperate for anything new from the celebrated author. Do we really need to see Scout all grown up, though? Do we want to see Huck Finn working in a tavern? Would it help to know that Holden Caulfield ends up selling insurance like any other phony?
The difference in this case, at least on the surface, is that the author is still alive to supervise the release of her work. But questions have been raised about how much control Lee is exercising over this process.
In 2007, Lee had a stroke; she now resides in an assisted-living facility in Alabama.
In 2013, Lee’s attorneys filed a lawsuit in Manhattan alleging that the son-in-law of her former literary agent had improperly handled the author’s copyright to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A few months later, the parties reached an agreement, and the case was dismissed.
Then, in July, Lee got into a bitter argument with former Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills, who published a biography called “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee.”
Mills said she had the cooperation of the novelist and her older sister, Alice Lee, but the extremely private Harper spoke out strongly against the biography. “Rest assured,” she wrote in a public letter, “as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”
Mills countered with evidence that she had, in fact, been given the sisters’ blessing, and her publisher, Penguin Press, stood by her. The disagreement was particularly awkward, because it pitted an admiring biographer against one of the most adored authors in the country.
During its defense of Mills’s book, Penguin Press released a 2011 fax that Alice Lee wrote before her death: “Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Mills said, “My feeling is that Alice’s statement in Alice’s words is a pretty concise snapshot of what the concerns are.”
HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham said Lee “is completely involved” with the release of “Go Set a Watchman.” “She’s 100 percent a part of this,” he said. “She was very happy that it was rediscovered after so many years.”
Burnham said the statement by Lee that was released Tuesday came directly from the novelist herself. “For those who know her, her tone is recognizable in that statement. There’s that distinctive cadence.”
He also dismissed any concerns about the author’s control of her affairs. “Her agent was with her two weeks ago,” he said, “and described her as very feisty. She’s still a voracious reader. She was just starting on A.N. Wilson’s biography of Queen Victoria.”
Burnham said fans would be delighted with the new book. “What it’s not is an early draft to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ It’s a very fine novel in its own right. It’s a novel that stands by itself.”