Since that time, I took a renewed interest in the story behind the novel, the singular, some would say inexplicable masterpiece of the often reclusive Harper Lee, a compelling tale of its own. Whatever this Kat did over the past year to revisit To Catch a Mockingbird, he was decidedly unprepared for the news that hit the airways a week ago. A manuscript written by Ms Lee, entitled Go Set a Watchman and composed by her in the 1950s, had recently been either discovered or rediscovered and would be published by HarperCollins in July 2015. The book is described as recounting the story of Scout twenty years later, in the racially charged environment of Alabama in the 1950s.
But the backstory to the forthcoming publication of Go Set a Watchman has itself become a matter of intense public discussion. According to reports, the manuscript was found last summer by Ms Lee’s lawyer, Tonya B. Carter, in the context of doing some legal work for the author. She came across the manuscript and realized that it was not a version of To Kill a Mockingbird, but rather a narrative about Scout and her father Atticus Finch 20 years later. In fact, it appears that when Ms Lee’s original editor at that time read the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman, he himself suggested to her that she compose another book, focusing on Scout as a child in 1930s Alabama. It would appear that Ms Lee took him up on the advice, raising an interesting question, at least for this Kat, about how copyright has no place for rewarding the strategic creativity contributed by the editor.
“The recovered manuscript has ignited fierce debate---much of it speculative—about why Ms Lee waited so long to publish again, whether the book will stand up to her beloved first novel, and whether the author, who has long shied away from public attention, might have been pressured or manipulated into publishing it.”It appears that Ms Lee lives in an assisted living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, a town of 6,500 residents, after having suffered a stroke several years ago and having become increasingly limited in both seeing and hearing. Ms Lee communicates to the public through Ms Carter, her lawyer, and speculation is rife as to whether Ms Lee had the mental capacity to make the decision to publish the book. Accounts both pro (she is still as “sharp as a tack”) and con (locals in Monroeville gossip” that Ms Lee “is mentally infirm these days, does not recognize old friends, and could not possibly have signed off on the publication”), have been bandied about in the press.
Keep in mind that Ms Lee steadfastly refused to publish anything after the appearance of To Kill a Mockingbird; changing one’s mind at this stage of one’s life might be explained as either a quest for legacy or as suggesting mental incapacity. Add to this the fact that no one at HarperCollins directly spoke with Ms Lee about the publication project. Said a senior vice-president at the publisher, “we talked to her through her lawyer and friend Tonja Carter”, such that communicating with Ms Lee “wasn’t necessary.” For its part, HarperCollins states it also sent the book for review by several unidentified persons. As for Ms Carter, when asked why she is not providing more information that might “quell suspicions” that there has been any improper influence, has stated that “I am a lawyer, not a celebrity. The focus should be on the gift Harper Lee is giving the world.”
Katreaders are encouraged to reach their own conclusion on what to make of this back-story which, for the moment, has become very much front and centre. From the legal perspective, this Kat is curious to know whether there are any precedents for vetting what is a required of a publisher in deciding to publish a book when there is a question about the mental capacity of the author. This is to be distinguished from the case where a work is discovered posthumously, such as in the case of Vladimir Nabokov and David Foster Wallace (whose father tried to teach this Kat Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the 1970s). It would seem that, in the latter case, issues such as whether any will was left by the decedent; did it address the issue of publication; if so, was the decedent of sound mind at the time that the will was executed? The issues related to determining the disposition of a decedent’s estate do not arise in the current situation. Ms Lee is thankfully very much still with us.
Under such circumstances, how should a publisher go about verifying that the author indeed wishes to have published a long-lost manuscript of a noted author, under the circumstances as described? I do not envy either the publisher or the lawyer in having to reach a decision.