Grace Prosniewski: Harper Lee and author privacy

By Grace Prosniewski, Daily Literary Columnist
Published February 11, 2015

The University declaring a snow day last Monday. Thoroughly enjoying Katy Perry’s halftime show (shout out to left shark). The return of crushed velvet as an acceptable material to make clothing out of. There are some things in life you just don’t see coming. And last week, the literary community was thrown quite a curveball.

Last Tuesday, it was announced that reclusive author Harper Lee was going to publish her second novel, a sort-of sequel to her magnum opus, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The new book, titled “Go Set a Watchman,” will feature an adult Scout and is set to be released in July of this year. The single-work author of one of the greatest novels of American literature announcing a new book after half a century’s worth of refusal? Yeah, it’s a big deal.

Most initial reaction to the news was, rightfully, stunned elation. The fervor, however, has slightly cooled over some troubling allegations, namely that Lee, now 88, is being exploited by her lawyer and publishers.

Lee’s only published novel to date, 1960’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” won the Pulitzer Prize, and to this day continues to be taught in schools around the country. The book focuses on tomboy Scout Finch, who along with her brother Jem and widowed father Atticus, live in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. Atticus, a lawyer, is tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. The trial and subsequent aftermath forces Scout to come to terms with the racial inequalities of her society, especially within the justice system.

Like her famous character Boo Radley, Harper Lee has long been known as something of a recluse. Since her initial skyrocket to literary fame, Lee has refused almost all interviews and speaking engagements, and published only a few essays in the past 50 years. And, up until last week, she had never expressed an interest in releasing another book.

The timing of “Go Set a Watchman” is somewhat puzzling. Last year, Lee lost her sister Alice, who was 103. Alice, a lawyer, had staunchly protected Lee’s privacy and estate until her death. And Harper Lee has been in relatively poor health since having a stroke in 2007. She resides in an assisted living home where she is wheelchair bound, nearly blind and deaf and suffering from memory loss.

Attempts to exploit Lee’s fragile state have been made before. In 2007, Lee signed the rights to “To Kill a Mockingbird” to a literary agent because her eyesight was too weak to read the contract. The case was settled out of court.

Frustratingly, the only input we’ve heard from Lee about this new book has always been vetted through her lawyer and publisher. Even her editor admitted that he didn’t think anyone spoke directly to Lee.

Lee recently released a prepared statement saying, “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman.” And, of course, no one should attempt to discredit Lee’s sentiments simply because of her age and health history. But these statements all go through a variety of channels before they reach the public. Lee doesn’t just tweet out her thoughts like some authors. All her communication with the public is vulnerable to manipulation by third parties.

And no one, not lawyers, publishers or even Lee herself, has come forward to explain the why. Why is she deciding to publish a novel that was originally turned down and that she has seemingly had no interest in releasing until now? Sure, people can, and do, change their minds all the time. But Lee’s entire life has been a study in deliberate and vigilant privacy.

The fact of the matter is many people stand to make a lot of money off “Go Set a Watchman.” And people often do horrible things, including exploiting the elderly, in pursuit of a windfall.

Whether “Go Set a Watchman” lives up to the literary prowess of “To Kill a Mockingbird” isn’t really the question here. Lee’s legacy as a canonical American author is almost untouchable. However, the entire situation brings up some important questions about the rights of artists and the public’s sense of entitlement to our favorite writers.