Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” goes on sale Tuesday — you may have heard — but the puzzle around the publication of the book isn’t clearing up anytime soon.
The shocking revelation in the book is that in “Watchman,” set in the late 1950s, about 15 years after the iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch has devolved from being a heroic lawyer to a petty bigot.
He’s a staunch segregationist who reads pamphlets such as “The Black Plague.” It turns out that Atticus, regularly voted as America’s favorite film and literary hero, did not want black people to be beaten and murdered, but rather, he’s intent on keeping them in their place. He refers to “our Negro population” as “backward” and as being “in their childhood as a people,” also warning that “we’re outnumbered, you know.”
The revelations stemming from the book’s publication come from Tonja B. Carter, who lists herself as Lee’s “estate trustee, lawyer and friend,” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published online Sunday.
“How I Found the Harper Lee Manuscript” tells her somewhat remarkable version of how she discovered the manuscript and how it was published.
Its publication has been highly controversial. Lee is an 89-year-old stroke victim who is nearly deaf and blind, is living in a nursing home, and had long vowed she would never publish anything after “Mockingbird.” Alice Lee, her sister, attorney, business manager and housemate, had shared that point of view.
But then, just two months after Alice died in November, Carter, the only other attorney in the tiny firm in Monroeville, Ala., announced that she had found the “Watchman” manuscript a few months earlier. She said she had never heard of it and rushed it over to Lee, who then reversed her stance against publishing, Carter said, and pronounced herself “happy as hell” to have it published.
Massive publicity and literary-world controversy ensued. Carter and Lee gave no interviews (Carter did not return a phone call or e-mail for this article). The publishers and agent said little. Suspicions of elder abuse were cast about, and Alabama sent investigators to Lee’s nursing home. They reported that no abuse was evident.
So, in the Journal op-ed, Carter seeks to “tell the full story, fill in any blanks that may be in people’s minds.”
The problem, literary agents and archival appraisers say, is that she does not seem to be fully informed about the provenance of her client’s iconic work and its value.
Carter joined the firm in 2006, but she does not specify when she assumed the role of estate trustee. She writes that when Lee’s then-agent and an appraiser from Sotheby’s came to review the original “Mockingbird” manuscript on Oct. 14, 2011, Carter took them to a bank safe-deposit box “where it was assumed the manuscript was held.”
Then, Carter says, she let the two men in the room and left to run an errand, unaware of what they saw, found or evaluated. Carter, however, quotes a recent New York Times article as saying what was found that day was “a publisher’s proof, not a particularly valuable item.”
Let’s check in with Allan J. Stypek on that.
He’s the owner of Second Story Books in Washington and over the past 40 years has evaluated and appraised more than 3,000 literary and historical items for the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court and dozens of other federal agencies, universities and private collectors.
Of that “not particularly valuable” page proof, he says: “Where would you even start the bidding on something like that? At least $100,000? It’s an open-ended question.”
A first-trade edition of “Mockingbird” in perfect condition goes for $25,000 to $35,000, he points out, and a galley would be far more valuable.
The manuscript itself?
Probably more than $1 million.
He also found stunning that Carter describes Lee’s most essential papers as being in disarray in 2011, in “an old cardboard box from Lord & Taylor” and says that another manuscript was in a “heavy, partially opened but tightly wrapped mailing envelope” that was “postmarked Jan. 3, 1961.” Carter describes it being in that same condition when she returned to the safe-deposit box last year, her curiosity piqued by family and friends mentioning that perhaps her client Lee had written a second novel.
Bonnie Nadell, a Los Angeles-based literary agent, was surprised to hear that Carter reports seeing a title sheet for “Watchman” but not recognizing it as the first draft of “Mockingbird,” as many have known it to be.
Lee biographer Charles Shields chronicled the evolution of the book, naming “Watchman” and a second draft titled “Atticus” in his 2006 bestseller, “Mockingbird.” Further, the meticulous papers of Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor, are housed at Columbia University in New York. They, too, have clear records of “Watchman.”
Nadell, who represented David Foster Wallace (author of “Infinite Jest”) before and after his death, says that an estate executor having an inventory of the client’s work is typical.
After Wallace’s suicide at age 46, she and his widow “did an inventory. We went through computer files. We had somebody open old floppy discs of things we hadn’t known about to see if there was material on there. There was an inventory of what existed.”
Wallace’s papers, once assembled, were then relayed to the University of Texas at Austin, where they are now archived.
But, in the end, perhaps the most startlingly item in Carter’s essay is something that’s not said.
After discovering the “Watchman” manuscript, she lists the people who read it prior to the decision to publish: herself, agent Andrew Nurnberg in London, “a handful of others,” and HarperCollins, the publishing house.
She does not list Lee as one of the readers, nor does she report any comment from Lee about the text or its remarkable changes to the moral character of her iconic character.
It’s possible that these matters will be cleared up in the days ahead with the book’s publication. But, for now, the story of “Watchman” remains a puzzling one.