The Dark Suspicions Behind the New Harper Lee Release

Books Features Harper Lee

Somewhere in the rush of excitement from yesterday’s announcement that a second Harper Lee novel would be released in July, a surprising countercurrent developed. As it turns out, the real story behind the narrative pushed by the publishing company Harper—that a “dear friend” had discovered the manuscript, thought to be lost, and that Lee was thrilled to be publishing after receiving positive feedback from friends—may not be as neat as they’d like us to believe.

For starters, that “dear friend” is actually Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer. Go Set a Watchman was actually written before the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, in the mid-’50s, and is meant to be a sort of sequel to Lee’s 1960 classic. Current circumstances, though, give reason for pause. As Jezebel pointed out yesterday in a piece titled “Be Suspicious of the New Harper Lee Novel,” Lee’s older sister, Alice, died last November at age 103. A lawyer herself, Alice was known as Harper Lee’s fierce protector—her shield from unwanted media requests and fans, and the primary handler of her legal and financial affairs.

As Gawker pointed out last year, Carter is a protege of Alice Lee’s who works at the same law firm, and the minute the elder Lee handed over her business affairs and checked into a nursing home after a bout of pneumonia in 2011, things got messy. Harper Lee had suffered a stroke in 2007, so practical control of their estate fell into Carter’s hands. Almost immediately, a biography that had been authorized and approved by the Lee sisters, The Mockingbird Next Door, was disavowed in a statement supposedly written by Harper Lee. Alice, still alive, corrected Carter’s mistake in a second statement, but in 2014, when the book was finally released, another statement from Harper called the author’s motives into question, and insisted that the book was unauthorized. Before her death, Alice Lee claimed that Carter had typed out the statement, and brought it for Harper to sign.

The problem, as Alice put it at the time, was that “poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her.” Or, in Gawker’s words: “The upshot is that Lee has a history of signing whatever’s put in front of her, apparently sometimes with Carter’s advice.”

Carter would not comment at the time, and seems to mostly steer clear of journalists. She may also have been complicit in a 2011 episode in which Lee mistakenly signed over her copyright to an agent named Samuel Pinkus—the details of which, as outlined in this Vanity Fair article, are particularly seedy.

All of which calls into question yesterday’s statement, which reads:

“I hadn’t realized it (the original book) had survived, 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.”

Not only is it highly doubtful whether Lee can speak for herself—by many accounts, according to Jezebel, she is near senility—but the fact that Alice is now gone, and Carter has a history of forcing Lee to sign statements Carter herself has written, casts a black shadow over the whole enterprise. More information will undoubtedly emerge in the interval between now and the July 14 publication date, but enough evidence has stacked up to warrant consideration of an ominous conclusion: That Tonja Carter may be a rogue operator taking advantage of a less-than-capable author who never wanted this book published at all.

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