Was Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman “Re-Discovered” Three Years Earlier Than Her Lawyer Claimed?

Books Features Harper Lee

Let’s get two things straight up top:

1. Go Set a Watchman, the so-called “sequel” that was actually a first draft of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is going to do insane business for HarperCollins. In fact, with the release date still 12 days away, it’s already the most pre-ordered book in that company’s history. It features Scout Finch and the other characters 20 years after the events of Mockingbird, and has been clearly documented as the earliest version of Mockingbird that Lee spent two years editing into the book we all know today.

2. The history behind this “sequel” is insanely sketchy, and it all centers around Tonja B. Carter, Lee’s attorney. To educate yourself fully, start here and then go here. Here’s the short version, from a previous post:

Lee had long been looked after by her older sister Alice, but when Alice died, a lawyer at her old firm named Tonja Carter seems to have acted quickly to push forward the new book. Harper Lee had suffered a stroke in 2007 and now resides in an assisted living facility, and many wondered whether the woman who had long claimed to be content with publishing just one novel in her life was really behind the decision.

The state of Alabama’s Human Resources Department investigated and found Lee competent, as did a group of HarperCollins executives—who, of course, had every incentive to push the project forward, since it’s a gigantic cash cow. But it remains unexplained why Lee reversed a lifetime policy of publishing no new work exactly three months after her sister passed, for a project that wasn’t even an actual, independent book.

The latest update to this story should come as no surprise—The New York Times is reporting that Carter’s story about discovering the manuscript attached to an old version of Mockingbird may be the latest in a series of deceptions. In fact, it turns out that Carter, along with Lee’s former agent Samuel Pinkus, met with a Sotheby’s books expert in 2011 to review what is now being called Go Set a Watchman. For those keeping track at home, that’s three years before Carter supposedly found the manuscript in August 2014.

Here’s the money quote, featuring Carter’s excuse:

Ms. Carter acknowledged in a statement last week that she had accompanied Mr. Pinkus and Mr. Caldwell to the bank at the request of Alice Lee, the author’s sister. But she said that she was sent from the room to run an errand before any review of the materials occurred.

Read the Times piece and the others linked above for a full account of all the discrepancies and shady dealings that have accompanied the release of the new book, including how Carter got rid of Pinkus before it could come out, and how they waited until three months after Alice’s death before announcing the book release. Or, in one of the more frustrating aspects of the whole saga, how Carter essentially refuses to give an interview to clear up the confusion; an utter lack of transparency that only deepens the sense that something is deeply amiss. Also, this:

A HarperCollins spokeswoman said that, while Ms. Carter had not previously mentioned the 2011 visit by Sotheby’s, it believes her account of stumbling onto the manuscript last year.

You don’t say! No word on whether the spokeswoman was counting her money as she gave the statement…

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