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Michael Hiltzik

Does Harper Lee really want her novel published -- and do her wishes matter?

Does Harper Lee really want her old novel published--and do her wishes matter?

Suspicion and doubt have clouded the announcement last week by HarperCollins that it would publish a second novel by Harper Lee, author of the classic "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"Go Set a Watchman" isn't a new work; it was the first manuscript Lee offered to Lippincott for publication in the 1950s. Her editor there suggested she retell the story of the Finch family of Maycomb, Ala., through the eyes of the young girl Scout. Once it was published in 1960, "Mockingbird" became, and remains, a worldwide phenomenon. "Go Set a Watchman" is at once a prequel and a sequel -- it's told from the narrative viewpoint of a grownup Scout revisiting her rural home.

Yet for all the excitement, there's a lot about the story of the old manuscript's rediscovery that sounds weird and more than a little dubious. Lee, 88, lives in an assisted care facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. According to reports from locals and friends, she suffers from failing eyesight and hearing, though she's said still to be mentally sharp.

Lee's older sister, Alice, who served as her companion, lawyer and all-around buffer against the outside world, died last year. Her legal matters passed into the hands of Tonja Carter, an associate of Alice Lee. It was Carter who was said to have discovered the typewritten manuscript of "Watchman." She turned it over to a London literary agent who made the deal with HarperCollins, which will bring out the book in July. Lee herself is said to have been unaware the old manuscript still existed. Although she chose never to publish another work in the 55 years since the publication of "Mockingbird," she's said to be delighted at its rediscovery. 

Yet among the strange facets of the story is that no one has heard publicly from Lee herself. Every word attributed to her has come from Carter, including a statement issued by HarperCollins that she is "alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions of [sic] 'Watchman.'"

The original announcement included a lengthy statement purportedly from Lee that seemed to anticipate some of the doubts: "I hadn't realized it had survived," she 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."

Adding to the murk are the words of Lee's editor at HarperCollins, Hugh Van Dusen, in an interview with New York Magazine.

Although others at the firm had read the manuscript, he hadn't seen it yet. "If it has been edited, nobody’s told me," he said. "I don’t know this for a fact, but I doubt very much that anyone at Harper has edited it. My understanding is that it will be exactly what she wrote in the mid-1950s." 

What does it mean to be the "editor" of a living writer who hasn't published anything in a half-century? "I don’t hear from her," Van Dusen said. "There’s no reason why I should, because we don’t need to do anything. I write her notes now and then, but I haven’t heard anything back and I wouldn’t expect to."  

It's also proper to observe that Lee's life has acquired some legal complications in recent years. A lengthy dispute between Lee and her literary agent over the copyright of "Mockingbird" was settled in 2013. Lee and her sister Alice raised a fuss over a "memoir" of the sisters by a writer and onetime neighbor, Marja Mills, in 2011, contending that the book was unauthorized. Mills countered by asserting that Lee had recently suffered a stroke. 

Put it all together, and it's unsurprising that the absence of incontrovertible evidence that Harper Lee really is aware of the discovery of her old manuscript and really is "happy as hell" that it will be published has raised doubts about the whole enterprise; Katy Waldman of Slate has gone so far as to urge HarperCollins not to publish the book at all. Lee may be on board with the publication, but we have only the words of layers of self-interested parties to rely on. Interestingly, amid all the discussion, no one has questioned that the manuscript actually is Lee's work. 

Yet that still leaves the question of whether the world deserves to read "Go Set a Watchman" even if Harper Lee objects. 

It's not unusual for marginalia, juvenilia and unfinished or abandoned works by important artists to be dredged up and pored over. Often there's a good reason: even the childhood jottings of Mozart, for instance, provide a clue to his artistic development and early influences. 

A late unfinished work like Dickens' "Mystery of Edwin Drood" can provide a clue to where the writer's art may have headed in the future and shed light on his previous career. For artists judged by history and popular and scholarly esteem to have achieved a certain stature and cultural importance, almost every scrap and scribbled etude can tell us something that deepens and enriches our understanding of his or her artistry.

Cases abound in which an artist's wishes for the destruction of his or her unpublished work have been disobeyed. Obedience to an artist's wishes would have deprived posterity of many of the works of Franz Kafka, among others. Perhaps the most celebrated recent example concerns Vladimir Nabokov's final novel, "The Original of Laura." The author had urged his wife to burn the unfinished manuscript, which existed only in the preliminary form of handwritten index cards. She procrastinated, and the task was bequeathed to his son and literary executor, Dmitri Nabokov, who instead published the work as a facsimile edition of the index cards. 

In many respects the mining of a great artist's discards or detritus is the work of academics, scholars and obsessives, but not always. Some monuments of culture were all but unknown until they were exhumed after the deaths of their unappreciated creators--Franz Schubert and Vincent van Gogh among them.

Does Harper Lee belong in the pantheon of authors whose literary output belongs to the world, regardless of their preferences? Although her published output is a single novel, the answer must be yes.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" exercises a hold on the reading public even today, 55 years later, because of Lee's literary skill at reproducing the world of rural Alabama. "Go Set a Watchman" may or may not be any good--we can discount the praise of the publisher and agents, because what else would they say?--but "Mockingbird" is important enough that learning what else Harper Lee had to say about her characters and her town, even before she recast it at her editor's behest, is more than likely worth knowing too. So go ahead, HarperCollins, and publish.

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