MONROEVILLE, Ala. — Would you like to understand how the “new” Harper Lee novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” came to be billed as a long-lost, blockbuster sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird” — one of the definitive books of the American 20th century — when, by all the known facts, it’s an uneven first draft of the famous novel that was never considered for publication?
Would you like to get a glimpse into how clever marketing and cryptic pronouncements have managed to produce an instant bestseller, months before anyone has read it?
Fabulous. Pull up a rocking chair, pour two fingers of bourbon — make it three — and let’s have a little chat, in the gloaming in this little town in south Alabama. Here is where Lee grew up with many of the real-life characters whose fictional counterparts would come to populate the only book she ever published.
First, those delicate questions.
Harper Lee, 88, had a stroke in 2007. She is, by all accounts, almost completely deaf and blind. She resides in an assisted-living facility out on the Highway 21 bypass in this slow-moving town of 6,500, still not all that much different from how she immortalized it more than half-century ago.
The high drama around the impending publication of “Watchman,” which erupted in the literary universe since the novel was announced this month, stems from the fact that Lee had long vowed she would never publish again.
Her attorney, Tonja Carter, took over representation when Alice Lee — the novelist’s older sister, housemate, lawyer and lifelong protector — became infirm a couple of years ago. Carter says her client reversed her decades-old stance after Carter stumbled upon a copy of “Watchman” last summer. Now, according to Carter, Lee is delighted it has shot to the top of bestseller lists, five months ahead of publication.
People have questioned the story, wondering if a person in Lee’s declining health can be said to have given reflective consideration to a manuscript she wrote 58 years ago.
Carter and Andrew Nurnberg, Lee’s international rights agent, say yes.
Carter described Lee as “a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long lost novel,” in remarks to the New York Times, the only media outlet to which she has spoken. “Instead, she is having to defend her own credibility and decision making.”
Nurnberg, well known and respected in the field, began representing Lee’s interests in 2013, after her longtime agent was found to have been involved in usurping her copyright. The domestic and international rights to “Mockingbird” are serious business — according to 2012 court papers, Lee earns about $3 million per year.
HarperCollins asked The Washington Post to direct its questions about “Watchman” to Nurnberg, who requested those questions be sent through e-mail: Does the newly discovered manuscript bear a date? Did Lee read the work and make comments? Back in the day, did the editors and agents involved in publishing “Mockingbird” see this and approve it for publication? What is Ms. Lee’s contract for this book? Since she never married, had no children and is the last survivor of her immediate family, were any of her more distant relatives consulted for approval?
A spokesperson for Nurnberg said he was traveling and could not answer questions. At least one of Lee’s nephews located by The Post did not return phone calls. And Carter did not respond to multiple calls, e-mails and visits to her office and rural home just outside Monroeville. When a Post reporter went to the house of her brother-in-law, who lives less than a mile away, asking for assistance in locating the home of Tonja Carter, he politely directed the reporter to the wrong house.
In part, the questions around the new publication were triggered by friends who have known Lee for half a century or more — decades longer than her current lawyer or agent. They say they have witnessed a stark mental decline in their friend and report that her short-term memory is erratic. These friends are also amazed that, after Carter said the book was discovered last summer, Lee appears to have confided that fact to no one else.
“She surprised everybody by coming to the [Alabama] Writers Symposium two years ago,” says Mary Tucker, a friend of 50 years and a retired schoolteacher here. “I went to see her the next week, telling her how excited everyone was that she came. And she said, ‘Oh, but I didn’t go to that.’ ”
Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University and a friend of the author, says Lee was “entirely lucid” when he visited her recently. He thinks the idea that she’s being manipulated is “ridiculous.”
Yet, he adds, “she has trouble remembering what she had for breakfast, that sort of thing.” He also says she never mentioned the discovery of the manuscript in several visits they had since it was discovered, including the day before the announcement.
In the early 2000s, the Lee sisters gave author Marja Mills access to their lives for a gentle portrait— even agreeing for her to move in next door. But after “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee” came out last year, Harper Lee gave a statement that she had never given permission.
In a recent interview, Mills says that Carter accosted her in the parking lot of the assisted-care facility one day — after she’d stopped reporting but before the book came out — accusing her of taking advantage of her client.
“She was extremely confrontational when there was no cause to be,” Mills said last week.
It was such an embarrassing situation that Alice Lee wrote Mills an apology, dated May 12, 2011, which Mills released to the media. In it, Alice wrote that Carter had written the accusation and coaxed Nelle (Lee’s first name) to sign it.
“When I questioned Tonja I learned that she had without my knowledge typed out the statement, carried it to The Meadows and had Nelle Harper sign it. . . . Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.
“I was talking to Tonja about the matter this morning, and she said to me: ‘How are we going to get this corrected?’ I replied: ‘I had no idea and it was her problem, not mine, she created it.’ I don’t know what she has done.”
She closed with: “I am humiliated, embarrassed and upset at the suggestion of a lack of integrity at my office. I am waiting for the other shoe to fall — Alice.”
Carter has never publicly disputed Alice Lee’s letter. But, while startling, it is not clear if the incident was serious enough for Alice Lee to lose trust in her younger colleague.
In any event, Alice died, at age 103, in November.
Three months later, “Watchman” appeared, billed as a breathless discovery.
Monroeville, which looms so large in the American literary imagination, has never been much more than a bump on the road between Mobile and Montgomery.
A.C. Lee, an attorney, moved his family here in 1912 from a few dozen miles away. It was homely little place: red dirt, pine trees, cotton fields and unpainted houses; a segregated backwater.
The youngest of four children, Nelle (“Ellen,” the name of a favorite aunt, spelled backward) was a child during the Great Depression. Her home town looked and felt like every other little town in the Deep South: a couple thousand souls sweating in the heat and humidity; about half black and half white; life slowly revolving, like a ceiling fan, around the courthouse in the town square.
The only thing remarkable about Monroeville, it turned out, was Lee and her sometimes next-door neighbor — Truman Capote.
They grew up wanting to be writers. A.C. gave them a manual typewriter to compose their stories when they were children, and they were both “apart people,” as Capote would later say.
He — flamboyantly gay, that nasal voice, that high-pitched laugh and gossipy manner — eventually settled in New York with his mother and adoptive father. He made a splash with his first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” that featured a character based on Nelle. He wrote “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” He was a star.
She — a high-school tomboy, ridiculed at the University of Alabama for wearing men’s clothes — chafed at the suffocating boundaries of her home town and state. She dropped out of college, disgusted, and followed her buddy Tru to New York in 1949. She, too, wanted to be a writer.
She first worked at a bookstore, then as a ticket agent for an airline. For seven years, on nights and weekends, she wrote fiction — often short stories — yet published nothing.
But for Christmas in 1956, a wealthy couple who doted on the struggling young writer from Alabama bestowed her with enough money to take a year off and write. Thrilled, Lee locked herself away, smoking furiously, staying up till midnight, biographer Charles J. Shields wrote in “Mockingbird,” a 2006 bestseller.
Three weeks later, she took the first 49 pages of a manuscript to an agent her friends suggested. That agent, Annie Laurie Williams, was a titan of the era. She had represented the film and dramatic interests of colossal successes such as “Gone with the Wind,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.” Her husband, Maurice Crain, represented the literary side of the couple’s business.
Williams was a meticulous record keeper, so when Lee handed over the pages, she dutifully noted it on a 3x5 card and filed it away:
1-14-57 Go Set a Watchman — p.1 through 49 of novel ms — 1 copy brought in by author
Lee was writing hard and fast now, and returned a week later, thrusting another batch of pages at the agency:
1-21-57: p. 50 through 103— 1 copy brought in by author
Over the next six weeks, Lee brought in batches of pages until, on Feb. 27, she brought in the last of 293 pages.
Ms is now complete, Williams noted on another 3x5 card, now kept with her papers at Columbia University Libraries in New York.
Lee, writing in 1957, had anchored the tale in the present day. Jean Louise Finch — nicknamed “Scout” — was going back to her small Alabama town to talk with her father, Atticus, an aging lawyer.
But Williams and Crain thought the draft was problematic. The Montgomery bus boycott, taking place just 90 miles from Monroeville, had concluded a year before. Congress was wrestling with the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower would sign in the fall.
Crain, taking control of the editing, thought the manuscript should focus more on the narrator’s father, according to the biographer Shields, and that the title should be changed to reflect that.
Revisions were finished by May 6, according to Williams’s records, and they sent it off to the J.B. Lippincott publishing house. The working title was now “Atticus.”
The Lippincott editors were impressed enough to meet with Lee, but they were not overwhelmed.
Tay Hohoff, the eventual editor of the book, later wrote of that first meeting for a corporate history of Lippincott, before it was acquired by HarperCollins. She was in her 60s when she received the original manuscript, a clear-eyed, 30-year veteran of publishing. Shields, the biographer, found it and shared it with The Post.
“First of all, the element in the original manuscript which was unmistakable: it was alive, the characters stood on their own two feet, they were three-dimensional,” Hohoff wrote. “And the spark of the true writer flashed in every line. Though Miss Lee had then never published even an essay or a short story, this was clearly not the work of an amateur.”
That said, noted Hohoff, who died in 1974, the effort was very, very flawed.
“The manuscript we saw was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel. The editorial call to duty was plain. She needed, at last, professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure.”
Lippincott did not offer to buy the manuscript. The editors sent Lee home to make revisions. They hoped she might come back.
This would seem to be, today, the best-selling book on Amazon, scheduled for a first print run of 2 million. A juggernaut for all involved.
All that summer, Lee kept at it, setting her story more in the past than the present. By mid-August, Williams filled out another 3x5 card for Lee’s file:
8-19-57: 1 copy of further revised MS brought in by author — this is the only copy we have on hand — everything else has been ret’d to author. This is a complete MS.
Hohoff, looking at the revised story, thought progress had been made and that Lee was demonstrating an admirable work ethic and a sense of professional commitment, Shields writes in his biography. Lee, living alone, subsisting on pennies, was throwing herself into the novel.
Two months later, on Oct. 17, Lippincott offered an advance of “a few thousand dollars,” Shields notes.
But the real labor was just beginning. Now, the editor and author settled into working together closely, talking for hours, exchanging ideas, moving things back and forth. Lee would grow so frustrated, she later told audiences, that she once threw the entire manuscript out of her window into a pile of snow.
It took until Nov. 10, 1959 — another two years — of edits, rewrites, changes, tweaks and overhauls — before Lippincott accepted the manuscript as ready for publication, scheduled for the following summer.
Lee, in a later speech, would say that she wrote the book three times: first in the third person, then in the first, then combining the voices of Scout as an adult and as a child.
The small town of her youth, set over a three-year period in the 1930s. Although Lee would say the book was not autobiographical, the fictional Maycomb was almost entirely drawn from real people and events in Monroeville.
Nelle was clearly the basis for Scout; Capote for Dill; her dad for Atticus (Finch, the fictional last name, was her mother’s maiden name); the cruelly tortured neighbor, Alfred Boleware Jr., for Boo Radley; even the misbegotten trial of Tom Robinson was based on a 1933 Monroeville case. The real and fictional courthouses were identical, as were the real and fictional street where Scout, Dill and Boo lived, all within 75 yards of one another.
Here’s a famous excerpt from early in the book:
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then. . . . Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
It’s a lovely passage.
It’s also the adult Scout talking, not the child. (This adult voice also narrates the equally iconic film of the book, with Gregory Peck in an Academy Award-winning role as Atticus.) This adult Scout looking back was the central conceit of the first draft Lee called “Go Set a Watchman.” It had been cannibalized into “Mockingbird,” used, like many a first draft before and since, as a good start on a finished product.
Nurnberg, in describing “Watchman” to the Guardian, said Lee was “bemused that somebody might be interested in an earlier book,” seeming to indicate the manuscript was not rewritten and polished after “Mockingbird.”
It is a “a very, very fine book,” he told the Guardian. “Beautifully crafted — the language and the passion and the humour, and of course the politics, that you know her for.”
“Mockingbird,” a precocious child’s-eye view of race, justice and the mysterious ways of Southern life, was a mammoth critical and commercial hit upon publication in the summer of 1960. It sold 500,000 copies in its first year of publication, won the Pulitzer Prize and became an indelible part of American culture.
Meanwhile, even before it was published, Lee was assisting Capote with his masterwork, “In Cold Blood,” about the killing of a family in Kansas. Then, for her novel, she did interviews, signed books, gave speeches and tried to answer all of the mail that was flooding in. She was not, by any means, a recluse who declined all interviews. By 1961, the book had sold 2.5 million copies.
She was white-hot. She, her agents and her publishers were all eager for her to write again.
On the first anniversary of publication, her agents sent her a playful but worried letter, pretending to be the book itself:
“TOMORROW IS MY FIRST BIRTHDAY AND MY AGENTS THINKS [sic] THERE SHOULD BE ANOTHER BOOK WRITTEN SOON TO KEEP ME COMPANY DO YOU THINK YOU CAN START ONE BEFORE I AM ANOTHER YEAR OLD? We would be so happy if you would.”
Lee sequestered herself, writing furiously, but could not come up with another effort to attempt to publish, which provides an important filter through which we might consider the new developments.
Williams corresponded frequently with major authors of the day. Her record keeping was so meticulous that the Columbia University collection of her correspondence includes more than “100,000 items in 208 boxes; 10 correspondence file boxes; 9 card file drawers; & ca. 150 volumes,” yet the only mention of “Watchman” appears to be that 1957 notecard, Shields, the biographer, says. There is no evidence the author ever sent Williams anything with “Watchman” attached to it again, he says, suggesting that the draft recently found is the original.
Hohoff, for her part, never said in that 1967 internal assessment that she missed a great book when the original draft was submitted. Neither did she say the issue was revisited.
In sum: Neither Lee, her agents nor her publisher, not even in the long, agonizing drought after “Mockingbird,” when Lee was desperately trying to write a new book, ever seemed to have considered the first draft, already composed, as a progression of her masterpiece.
Then, as today, a sequel would have been a shoo-in. It would have been an automatic bestseller.
Nurnberg, in that interview with the Guardian, said that “Mockingbird” was actually part of a planned trilogy, according to letters he has seen between Lee and her agents, and that Lippincott had planned to publish “Watchman.”
Shields, who has never seen those letters, is skeptical.
Although he did not have access to Lee or her personal papers while writing his biography, he says the available evidence suggests a “trilogy”could have been nothing more than a blue-sky conversation between author and agent, for neither the agent nor the publisher left any traces of a publishing plan for “Watchman.”
“A trilogy is way more ambitious than anything Lee was capable of, or would have the temerity to suggest. . . . ‘Watchman,’ ‘Atticus,’ ‘Mockingbird’ — these were all iterations of the same book.”
She lived mostly in New York, simply and in near total anonymity in her apartment on the Upper East Side. She no longer gave interviews. She regarded going to downtown Manhattan as the far side of the world. Horton Foote, the writer who adapted “Mockingbird” for film, said she lived within blocks of mutual friends . . . and never visited them, according to Shields’s biography.
“I honestly, truly have not the slightest idea why she lives in New York,” gossiped Capote. “I don’t think she ever goes out.”
She investigated a murderous pastor in small-town Alabama for a true-crime book in the 1980s, a la “In Cold Blood,” but lost interest.
When she came back home for a few months each year, she lived with Alice in the family’s new home — a one-story brick rancher, 2,500 square feet and three bedrooms in an outlying neighborhood of Monroeville.
Despite the wealth provided by the book, they never moved or appeared to substantially upgrade. (Today, the house is valued at $100,000, according to real estate records, and is visibly in need of repair.) Alice, proficient well into her 90s, worked as an attorney in their father’s law firm and looked after her baby sister’s business affairs.
Neither woman married nor had children. They did not have a television, but they would go to a neighbor’s house to watch Alabama football games. They went for drives in the country, read voraciously, did crossword puzzles and ate Saturday lunch at David’s Catfish House, squabbling over who would get the check.
“They were really quiet. Kept to themselves. They’d send me a Christmas card,” says Justin Thorton, a next-door neighbor.
In 2007, Nelle had a stroke while in New York. She moved home for good, settling in an assisted-living facility. Alice eventually faltered, too, moving into a different assisted-living facility three years ago.
In her stead, Carter, a younger partner in their tiny firm, took over Nelle’s affairs.
Some of the last few years were messy. There was a lawsuit to get Lee’s copyright back from a former agent. Carter helped file a suit against the Monroe County Museum — set in the same courthouse that provided the model for the trial in the book and film — for copyright infringement. The museum features exhibits on the lives of Lee and Capote and sells gift-shop items for both. The suit charged they did not have Lee’s permission to do so.
The two cases were settled out of court. Lee retained her copyright.
The lawsuit against the museum, which still sells “Mockingbird” items, left hard feelings.
Stephanie Rogers, executive director of the museum, takes a breath when asked to describe her relationship with Carter since then.
“I do not have a relationship with Ms. Carter,” she says slowly.
The discovery of “Watchman” has been narrated entirely by Carter, now 51, who has answered few questions.
She has said, in a statement and in e-mail and text exchanges with the New York Times, that she was going through some old papers of Lee’s and came across “Watchman,” attached to an old manuscript of “Mockingbird.” It’s not clear exactly where in Monroeville this took place, other than a “secure facility.”
“I was stunned,” she told the Times. She says she had no idea what it was and rushed it across town to Lee, who immediately identified it as “the parent of ‘Mockingbird.’ ”
But Carter’s failure to recognize “Watchman” may seem surprising, given her status as legal guardian of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Its history was never a secret to those in Nelle’s inner circle — or to anyone who read Shields’s biography. “Watchman” is discussed and described on Page 114.
Lee, in a statement released by Carter, said she was “happy as hell” that it was finally being published. The statement also quoted Lee as saying that she recently showed the manuscript to some unnamed friends, who verified its merit, thus convincing her to reverse her long-held decision about not publishing.
In the statement, she said that she was young when she wrote it, so when an editor told her to reshape it, “I did as I was told.”
At the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the character of Boo Radley, a shadowy figure through the entirety of the novel, finally steps into the light. His appearance gives the book its last narrative twist and final emotional resonance.
“Having been so accustomed to his absence,” Lee wrote, “I found it incredible that he had been sitting beside me all this time, present. He had not made a sound.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.