Harper Lee's New Book and the Conspiracy Theory that Will Make It Sell

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Well, well, well, miss Harper Lee's got a second book coming out soon, and the public awaits its drop with tense anticipation. Go Set a Watchman is expected to be a wild success, just like Lee's first novel To Kill a Mockingbird was, when it hits the shelves around the globe this July. But will it sell for the right reasons, or will it take advantage of a long-standing conspiracy theory that Harper Lee is not the writer she claims to be? 

That's right, folks. One of the most beloved and best-selling authors in the American canon has been under intense scrutiny for nearly half a century: there are those that doubt she penned Mockingbird at all, or at least made it into the classic we know and love today. There's a chance that Watchman will finally put to rest all the scandalous rumors that hold Truman Capote actually ghosted the Pulitzer Prize Winning best seller. Or maybe it'll finally prove we conspiracy theorists were right all along! Go Set a Watchman? More like Go Set Your Facts Straight! And we're off.

Go Set a Watchman: The Details You Need to Know 


What would Atticus have to say about this? Courtesy of Universal International Pictures

Go Set a Watchman will be the second novel published by Harper Lee besides To Kill a Mockingbird. It stands as a kind of sequel to Mockingbird, in that it's set 20 years into the future and follows the character of Scout as she visits her aging father Atticus and recounts the past. Kind of sounds like a snoozer, but don't judge a book by its synopsis, right? 

The thing is, authors typically write sequels after the first volume of the series is published, not before. Not so with Lee's books. Mockingbird was published in 1960. Watchman, on the other hand, was written in the mid-50s, but when Lee submitted it to editors at Lippincott Publishing they advised her that though it showed talent, it didn't pack a punch. But they weren't ready to give up on the prospect just yet. 

They suggested that she refocus the concept, scrap the flashbacks and instead get right to the meat of the story in the present tense and from the point of view of Scout. She took those notes, and churned out what would eventually become Mockingbird. After that point, the 304-page manuscript for Watchman was "lost" and resurfaced just three months ago after Lee's lawyer Tonja Carter found it wrapped in old Mockingbird pages. Possibly in Lee's sister's safety deposit box. But more on that later. 

A statement from Lee herself makes it seem like she's delighted the manuscript has been found and looks forward to seeing it bounded. Prior to the big announcement, she sent Watchman around to some of her respected peers, who gave her the thumbs up: this is all she needed to feel confident in moving forward with the plan. Though some are skeptical as to whether Harper Lee is even fully aware of what's going on. 

See, in 2007, the writer suffered a stroke that left her mostly deaf, virtually blind, and mentally feeble. Some are concerned that Carter, who became Lee's lawyer after her long-time attorney and late-sister Alice retired, isn't doing the aged writer any favors. For the longest time, Lee has been reluctant to talk about her work or her process, so the fact that she's taken so lightly to having her freshman work published is a little strange, no? And, from what her editor tells us, the work is going to be published as is "“ au naturale

Her biographer Charles Shields, though optimistic about the book, admitted to NPR that the way the unedited story reads could surprise some. "I think it's going to be a little rough," he told NPR. "I think you're going to see a novel by a young woman trying her hand at fiction writing." Yes, writers can hit their stride at different points in their career: but for Shields to warn readers that the first book could be very different from the second is suspicious. 

These will be the only two works we have to judge Lee's artistry by, and if they're too dissimilar to each other, it's going to raise a lot of eyebrows. It's one thing for a writer to go through growing pains in the early works; but it's another to write with two completely independent voices. That's just improbable. Maybe one of them isn't hers at all…

To Kill a Mock-up First Draft: Who Really Wrote the Book? 

It is public knowledge that even if Harper Lee did pen Mockingbird, she had plenty of help. Shields makes no pretense about how involved her then-editor at Lippincott was in the writing and rewriting process. Lee's pages were subjected to intense criticism and rewrites, and the editor was mostly responsible for giving Mockingbird its tight structure.

 
Still, a great film, Courtesy of Universal International Pictures

First time writers often need some assistance learning the ropes, so that Lee did receive a great deal of assistance is not in and of itself surprising. What is surprising is how effectively and thoroughly she was able to turn her book around, and in a remarkably short period of time. 

Not only that, but without all the back-and-forth documentation, it's hard to tell just how much of the actual novel Lee did herself, and how much was contributed by her editor. Then again, a popular theory holds that there was someone else that played a major role in the development of Mockingbird, and he happened to be one of, if not Lee's, closest friends. Truman Capote is known for supporting Lee through her journey, but just how much support has been up for debate.

The Truman Capote Files 


Is this the real Harper Lee? Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Famed and famously meticulous author Truman Capote was one of Lee's beloved childhood friends, and they grew up together thick as thieves. Knowing this, it makes the allegations that Capote either ghostwrote Mockingbird or largely edited it all the more biting "“ or possibly more plausible. Though Capote's writing style is distinct from the one found in Lee's book, it bears similarities. And also, we have nothing else to compare Lee's writing to…tricky, tricky. 

That Capote would have gone to great lengths to help his friend is unquestionable. As kids, the two writers spent their summers in Monroeville, Alabama whiling away the sunny days and balmy nights. And yet despite those happy times, Lee's childhood was something less than pleasant: her mother suffered a mental breakdown and, Capote claims, even tried to drown Lee in a bathtub (though Harper denies this happened). That would scar a kid for life, no doubt. 

After she dropped out of college, Lee joined Capote in NYC where he introduced her to high society life. Through friends he introduced her to, Lee got signed with a literary agent, and then within just five months she had a first draft ready of Atticus, the original title for Mockingbird. It was a huge commercial and critical success, receiving a Pulitzer Prize and a movie adaptation, and tens of millions of copies to date have been sold. 

That's when Lee and Capote's friendship took a turn for the worst. According to Lee's sister Alice, Capote was bitterly envious that Harper won a Pulitzer and not him. By Lee's own accounts, her ex-best friend spewed vicious gossip about her in public. He drowned in the bottle and got lost in the drugs, and quickly distanced himself from Lee. One literary critic even said she felt Capote had "implied" to her that he had written Mockingbird, which, if true, would be an act of betrayal no matter how you slice it.

 
Capote and Lee from the film Capote, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

But the retreat was mutual. After Lee helped Capote research his historical fiction novel In Cold Blood, she secluded herself from the public eye. She gave no more interviews, she offered no insight, nothing. Was the idea of wild popularity all too daunting? Could Capote not stand living in the shadow of his friend? Or did the two have a falling out because they found that keeping up the ruse was just too hard for them? Sustaining that kind of lie, upon which so much of their friendship and lives hinged, can get exhausting. It wouldn't be that amazing if one or both of them cracked under the pressure that comes with keeping up false appearances. 

Now, it's quite possible that Capote had no hand in the work, that's true. In fact, a letter written by Capote a year before Mockingbird's release praises the manuscript and its author. Nowhere in the letter is made any indication that he had anything to do with the book's creation, which might lead us to believe that he was just a fan and nothing more. Still, if he did have his fingers in that pot, why would he let on about it? 

If Capote was involved in the writing of Mockingbird at all, I doubt very much he wrote it from scratch. Considering he had the initial manuscript to work off, much like an outline (a word Lee's biographer actually used to describe it), as well as Lee's input, it makes more sense that he took advantage of both. With both of these at his disposal, it would have made for an easier time of ghosting the rewrites.

Go Ask Alice, Harper's Sister (Except She's Deceased, So We Can Only Pretend) 

Then we've got someone else that was close to Harper Lee throughout her lifetime: her sister. Some note the coincidence of Alice Lee's death and the almost too-speedy publication of Watchman is a little fishy. After 55 years of abstaining from literary production, and just about three months after Alice's death the living Lee makes moves? Something's missing here. 

The answer could lie in the family dynamic that played out between the two sisters. Shields stated that Alice was an overpowering presence in her sister's life, and even fiercely condescending at times. Apparently Alice told Harper that she'd never be able to match the quality of Mockingbird, so she should just give up all hopes of publishing another novel. That's rough to hear from a sibling. Now that she's gone, the biographer believes, Lee can finally flap her wings. 

But at the same time, Harper has had fond things to say about her now deceased sister. She would refer to Alice as "Atticus in a skirt," a double compliment: not only was the Mockingbird character Atticus a venerated lawyer, he also held his family together with wide arms of love and righteousness. As you can see, Harper has great affection and respect for her older sister that would lead us to believe the two had a pretty good relationship.

 
Still one of the most important books ever written, Courtesy of Universal International Pictures

But that puts these two views of Alice at odds with each other: was she a controlling, overprotective handler, or was she a compassionate, conscientious, and loving mentor? Or, was she both? 

If Harper actually didn't write Mockingbird, Alice, shrewd lawyer that she was, might have tried to stifle any work that could threaten Lee's claims of authorship. If any other work turned out not only to be inferior to the best seller but so obviously stray from her signature style, it would call into question her legitimacy as a writer. This would jeopardize her entire estate. 

Had Alice known about the "lost" manuscript, she might have done everything in her power to suppress its release. Obviously the original editor at Lippincott found Mockingbird to be superior to Watchman "“ enough to push it "“ so why shouldn't Alice? Remember, her career depended on keeping Lee's image intact, as presumably does Carter's. 

If you want my opinion…There's an old joke I think fits in this context, and it goes "Lady, your husband's not dead. He's hiding." In light of all the commotion this new novel has made, it makes me think that maybe that manuscript wasn't lost: it was just hidden. It might be easy to overlook, but Watchman was found by Carter "three months ago" "“ Alice died on November 14, just about three months ago to the day. 

In dying, Alice may have unknowingly transferred over some control to Lee's safety deposit box to Carter, who then used her access to gather materials not meant to see the light of day again. As her legal representation present at all deals, Carter would have a financial interest in Lee's affairs: and a new book deal for such a star writer means big money.

Interview with Harper Lee's Editor: Why's This Guy Mincing Words? 

To add fuel to the controversy, Harper Lee's current editor Hugh Van Dusen seemed a bit flummoxed in an interview with NY Magazine's Vulture column about the forthcoming novel. He was completely stunned when he learned, on Tuesday along with most of the world, that Lee had written something else of substance. 

In fact, he's not even sure where the manuscript was found. "The version I was told was that the book was in either a safe deposit box or a bank vault…" he said. "It was wrapped in a manuscript of [Mockingbird] and nobody noticed it for all these years." How does he not know exactly where the bundle of such culturally important papers was found? You'd think that discovering the artifact would be such huge news that people behind the scenes wouldn't be able to stop talking about it.

 
This is no time for small talk, Courtesy of Universal International Pictures

On top of that, as I mentioned earlier, it is believed that the manuscript is believed to have been discovered by Carter in Alice Lee's lockbox. This thickens the already murky cloud surrounding the entire ordeal. What was Carter doing in that box? What was the manuscript doing in there in the first place? Was it just an accident, or was it intentionally stowed away? 

Also, he admits to not having much direct communication with the ailing, elderly writer whose work he presumably edits. Because of her poor health, Van Dusen talks business almost exclusively through Lee's attorney Carter. And many believe that Carter is less than trustworthy. 

In 2011, she was accused by Alice of making statements on behalf of her client without her consent. She directly contradicted Alice on several occasions when it came to Harper's estate. Not only that, but Carter's husband is a distant cousin of Truman Capote. If there is any bad blood there, it could have spilled across family ties.

So After All this Time, Why Now? 

Novelist Philip Hensher had questions of his own about Lee's decision to publish. All these years Lee has been pretty decisive that she didn't want to bring another novel besides Mockingbird into this world. So why now? 

That the second book is coming out at all is suspicious enough, there can be no doubt. Some say that Lee's mind is slipping, and she doesn't have the capacity to make decisions of such great importance. That's possible as well. Maybe she actually doesn't want the book published, but her lawyer has persuaded her to do it for her own personal gain. 

But what I find most intriguing about the whole affair is the coincidence of the book's discovery and Alice's death, as well as how those close to Harper are discussing the forthcoming novel. If the manuscript was in Alice's safety deposit box, why? What was she hiding it for? Could it really have ruined Lee's reputation as an author?

 
Lee's got swagger, Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News 

And also, why are Lee's editors and biographer so quick to judge this work as rough and imperfect when they haven't even read it? They're setting the bar pretty low pretty far in advance "“ again, why? Why the need to let everyone know Watchman may read differently from Mockingbird, that it might take some getting used to. Sure sounds like they're covering their bases just in case someone calls them or Lee out. 

Lastly, that interview Harper's editor Van Dusen gave is riddled with all kinds of confusing red flags. Why hasn't he spoken to Harper in so long? Can his correspondence with her lawyer be trusted? And why did he not even know there was another novel? When her submission to Lippincott must have been filed somewhere? You don't think he'd be trying to ride that gravy train all the way home? 

I'm sure that once Watchman rolls out, sleuths and conspiracy theorists alike will be hard at work comparing and contrasting the writing styles of each. They're likely to come up with a lot of bogus claims about authorship, as well as some truthful ones. Harper Lee has always been America's sweetheart. Is that all about to change?
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