Before you run out and buy Harper Lee’s “new novel”, called Go Set a Watchman, you might want to know the back story, and it isn’t pretty. In fact, like 3-day-old fish, it stinks to high heaven.
The protagonist here, some say villainess, is a woman named Tonja B. Carter, whose age is uncertain but what is certain is that she graduated from law school in 2006. She went to work at the small law firm in Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee’s older sister, Alice Lee, had been a partner for many decades. Alice was the lifelong housemate, protector, gatekeeper and confidant of her sister, known to family and friends as Nelle.
“Miss Alice” was then in her 90s but still practicing law full time. She began to allow the ebullient Ms. Carter to assist her in handling Harper Lee’s legal and business matters. Tonja was so eager to please she made herself indispensable. (Does the name Eve Harrington ring a bell?)
Ms. Carter’s machinations leading up to the upcoming publication of the book are extensive and have been branded “suspicious” but we’ll cut to the chase. Last February, Carter put out a statement that she had “suddenly discovered” a “long lost novel” penned a half-century ago by Harper Lee and that HarperCollins would be publishing it this month.
It now seems clear that it is not a new novel at all, but a preliminary draft of the manuscript that was published in 1960 as To Kill A Mockingbird, which won a Pulitzer and great acclaim—acclaim so overwhelming that Harper Lee developed a case of writer’s block and never published another book. In fact, Go Set A Watchman (a phrase from Isaiah 21:6) was the working title of the early version of the narrative that later became To Kill A Mockingbird.
When Harper Lee submitted the first draft of Watchman to her agents in New York in 1957, they found her a publisher and a devoted editor who re-worked the material with her over the next two years. The editor suggested that the characters of Scout and her brother Jem, who were adults in the early version, be rewritten as young and impressionable children, which then became key to the coming-of-age magic of Mockingbird.
The Watchman manuscript, a disjointed draft, went into Miss Alice’s safety deposit box at the Monroeville bank and there it rested for over 50 years, despite impassioned pleas from The Literati for another book from Harper Lee. Miss Alice never considered publishing it because it is not a book, only a preliminary sketch for what later became Mockingbird. It is not Harper Lee’s vision of how Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch might have evolved twenty years after the events of Mockingbird, it is an early evocation of them as adult characters in a different plot.
Miss Alice was well aware Watchman would not burnish the literary reputation of her delicate and sensitive sister so she kept it in storage. What is becoming apparent now is that Carter’s explanations of how she “found” the manuscript are being widely questioned and her assurances that Harper Lee wants this thing published are being met with skepticism by many people who are close to the author.
Miss Alice wrote a letter before her death last year saying her sister “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” (Does the name Brooke Astor ring a bell?)
According to the New York Times, Carter did not “discover” the manuscript in late 2014, as she now claims, but in 2011 when she was going through the safety deposit box with Harper Lee’s agent and an appraiser from Sotheby’s. There are those who think Carter realized that Miss Alice would never approve its publication–so she waited until after Alice died last November at age 103. Then, after she came into control of the affairs of the author, Carter announced, “EUREKA, I have found a long lost novel by Harper Lee.”
The agent and the appraiser both told The Times that Carter was in the room with them in 2011 reading the manuscript of Go Set A Watchman. Ms. Carter, however, told The Times “that she was sent from the room to run an errand before any review of the materials occurred. She denied ever learning that a different manuscript had been found that day and would not elaborate on whether she had later asked what happened. She also declined to answer any additional questions.”
In other words, what The Times is saying in their prissy indirect way, is that TONJA CARTER IS A BIG FAT LIAR. Why is she pushing through this “book” even though Harper Lee is 88 and doesn’t need the money? Because, if she is the literary executor and lawyer for the estate, Carter would stand to make a killing, something that would have been out of her reach as long as Miss Alice was alive. So far, Carter has not explained the parameters of her financial participation in the publication of Watchman.
Litigationandtrial.com writes, “Many people who have known Lee for decades, from the editor-in-chief at W. W. Norton to the owner of her favorite restaurant, David’s Catfish House, have said that Lee was adamant that nothing else was going to be published in her lifetime. Others in Monroeville say that Lee’s health has been in a severe decline for years and that they feel she’s being manipulated and that she likely lacks the capacity to decide one way or another.”
“Adding to the concern, it seems that virtually no one can actually see Lee anymore, not even her editor or her publisher. Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president of HarperCollins, told The Times, ‘We talked to her through her lawyer and friend Tonja Carter,’ adding that getting direct permission from Ms Lee ‘wasn’t necessary.’”
Not necessary, indeed. In preparation for the July 14th launch, HarperCollins has printed two million copies of Watchman in the U.S. and 700,000 in the U.K. The Telegraph has written that everyone in the literary community feels certain that Harper Lee’s reputation will be diminished by this ancient, unpolished prose.
Litigation and Trial Lawyer Blog concludes, “Tonja Carter has apparently become Lee’s sole lawyer, guardian, confidant, advisor, agent, and spokesman, and in that context has the duty to put the questions about her potentially incapacitated client to rest. Everything published thus far by the mainstream media makes it look like one of America’s beloved authors may be yet another tragic example of elder abuse.”
ORB SAYS: We’re going to be hearing a lot more about this Tonja Carter person. In the meantime, Harper Lee’s closest friend from childhood, Truman Capote, would not be pleased to see his shy and introverted soulmate Nelle at the center of this improbable, overhyped turn of events.