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How Harper Lee Lost Her Voice

Her last years were mired in scandal, and more struggles over her unpublished works may lie ahead.

Stephen Shugerman / Getty Images

Once there was a time when I thought about Harper Lee like a reader. Like millions of adolescents in America and around the world, To Kill a Mockingbird was a required high school text—for ninth grade, in my case. The book moved me. Its stark and simple message of grave injustice and Atticus Finch’s valiant attempt to right systemic racist wrongs got under my white skin, as it was meant to do. Harper Lee’s aversion to media intrigued me, but not so much that there was a burning need to breach it. She wanted to be left alone and made it plain, on her terms. She was so determined, so consistent, and this attitude was easy to respect and trust.

I stopped thinking of Harper Lee like a reader long before February 3, 2015, when HarperCollins surprise-announced the “discovery” of Go Set a Watchman, the 1957 prototype for Mockingbird, and its forthcoming publication. That day clinched the switch, though. From then on, conversations about Harper Lee vaulted out of literary and cultural circles and into something louder, uglier, and sleazier that eroded any sense of reliability. 

Her decision to publish the book was questioned, since she didn’t seem to speak in her own voice. We heard from Tonja Carter, the Monroeville lawyer who began as Alice Lee’s legal assistant, then partner, to later become sole arbiter of Harper Lee’s affairs. We heard from HarperCollins (and Penguin Random House in the UK) and from Lee’s agent, Andrew Nurnberg. We heard from those in Monroeville who professed to know Lee best. We even heard from Sam Pinkus, Lee’s onetime literary agent who stole away the copyright to Mockingbird, restored to Lee only after a prior, heavily publicized lawsuit.

On the rare occasions that we were privy to Lee’s opinions—that “happy as hell” statement, the clip of her emphasizing her desire to publish to documentary filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy, even that “go away” scrawl in response to Connor Sheets, who ended up breaking the story of her death, some kind of dogged karma in action—we questioned her authenticity, her competence, her mental state, everything. Decades of respect and trust evaporated. Harper Lee, that once reliable beacon of American literature, was no longer reliable.

As the media picked Harper Lee apart, their—my—actions sounded a sadly familiar note. She had retreated into silence precisely because it was a way to maintain her voice when others claimed different. Think of that awful, insulting rumor: that her childhood friend Truman Capote contributed so much to the making of To Kill a Mockingbird that he might as well have written it—a rumor that Capote himself, apparently, delighted in perpetuating. Think of Lee’s research for In Cold Blood, pivotal in many critical ways, but virtually unacknowledged upon the book’s 1966 publication, when it was Capote that received the kudos and accolades, leaving little for Lee.

Perhaps that’s why, when the “big reveal” of Go Set A Watchman turned out to be that the older, more frail Atticus Finch of the novel was a racist, to twenty-something Jean Louise’s mortification and horror, I saw it a little differently from the outraged masses who felt Harper Lee had absconded with their childhood. Watchman felt, albeit in a more clumsily written, unedited way, like Lee’s attempt to speak out for herself.

I don’t doubt her editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, made the right call in rejecting Watchman and coaxing Mockingbird out of Lee. Mockingbird is the far superior work. Its more binary treatment of racism in a small town, its vivid depictions of a Depression-era childhood similar to Lee’s own, resonate with a narrative power missing in most of Watchman (we know this because the prototype includes verbatim passages that later showed up in Mockingbird). Scout could get readers thinking about race and civil rights in a way that Jean Louise in the adult version, too pent up with righteous indignation of her own, likely couldn’t—especially at a time when Brown v. Board of Education still felt too raw in too many Southern states.

If Watchman was, indeed, Harper Lee’s attempt to speak in her own tongue, it failed. She was a brand now, a line item in News Corp’s budget, too important to HarperCollins to be a mere author. (Case in point: the deluxe editions of Watchman selling for $1500 a pop around Christmastime.) The brand management of Lee at HarperCollins had been, in fact, a fait accompli for years, in the same way that The Great Gatsby, still selling half a million copies a year, makes F. Scott Fitzgerald a brand for Scribner.

Backlist gets you so far, but a new work—even one clearly meant for academic analysis and the archives, as Watchman was—meant new revenue. (This is why publishers love new work by famous dead authors.) Yet that fell short. Watchman sold over 2 million copies in 2015, and still it was not enough to counter lower revenues, negative foreign currency fluctuations, and declining ebook sales for the year. A cash cow can only do so much. Harper Lee could not prop up HarperCollins all by herself. That an 89-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner with a single novel to her name was supposed to accomplish this is, on its face, absurd.

Now Harper Lee joins the roster of dead writers off of whom a great many people could profit. Just a week before her death, Scott Rudin and Aaron Sorkin announced they were producing and writing a Broadway version of Mockingbird—a prospect Lee actively rejected for decades. G. Neri’s children’s book, Tru and Nelle, about Capote and Lee’s childhood friendship, publishes on March 1. Rumors will persist, in part because of Tonja Carter’s op-ed last summer strongly insinuating that other manuscripts by Lee exist, in publishable shape to varying degrees. Subsumed, once more, is Harper Lee’s voice. There may be one last chance for her to speak out, when her will is probated and we learn who truly benefits from her estate. But I fear, and hardly doubt, that document will not be Harper Lee’s last written word. It may be years before we hear her reliable voice, if that’s even possible.