Is Harper Lee really ‘happy as hell’?

Harper Lee
Author Harper Lee, known to friends as Nelle, is shown in her assisted-living facility in 2010. The 88-year-old will publish a second novel in July.
(Penny Weaver / Associated Press)

Who would have thought we’d ever see a second book from Harper Lee? It has been 55 years since she published “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the very private 88-year-old had shown no signs of giving interviews, let alone publishing another novel.

So news this week that a new Lee novel, titled “Go Set a Watchman,” is coming in July, was met with immediate enthusiasm. Not only is it a second novel from Lee, but it features the same beloved characters: Scout, now an adult, who returns to Maycomb, Ala., and reminisces with her father, Atticus Finch. The book immediately shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

But soon voices were raised in concern. Lee, who suffered a stroke in 2007, now resides in an assisted-living facility in Monroeville, the Alabama town that inspired Maycomb. Her elder sister, Alice, who for most of their lives served as Harper’s attorney, died in November at age 103. Was Harper Lee really a full participant in the decision to publish the book? 

A new statement released Thursday says she is. “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions of ‘Watchman’,” Lee said in a statement provided by her publisher, Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.


That statement stands in contrast to the community around her. “Multiple residents of Monroeville who have known Harper Lee for years said Wednesday that they believe the 88-year-old author does not possess sufficient mental faculties to make informed decisions about her literary career,” reports.

Lee has always ducked interviews with the media, but now a security guard is posted at the facility where she lives, warning off would-be interviewers. The facility staff are not allowed to speak to the media without first going through Lee’s attorney, Sonja Carter.

Her editor, Hugh Van Dusen, told New York Magazine that even he doesn’t speak to Lee directly. “She’s getting progressively deafer and more blind, and that’s where things stand. I don’t hear from her.... I think we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say ‘HarperCollins would like to do this and do that’ and get her permission. That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.”

That distance has caused people to question the publication of this book now. “There’s cause for some skepticism about whether Lee, reportedly in poor physical health herself, really wanted this book published,” Scott Martelle writes in the L.A. Times’ Opinion pages. “After all, she had six decades to find it in her files if she was interested in having the public read it.”


“What does it do for her reputation as a writer if, as is likely the case, “Go Set a Watchman” turns out to be a lesser work?” asks L.A. Times book critic David L. Ulin. “This is a novel, after all, that was rejected and then ignored for 60 years. How then do we assess it, judge it, read it, both as an aesthetic experience and in terms of Lee’s career?”

In terms of publishing, “Go Set a Watchman” seems already to be a success. The book, which will be published on July 14, remains Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller.

Twitter: @paperhaus

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