The Harper Lee controversy

The ‘discovery’ of a supposedly long-lost manuscript of a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird is intriguing. It has certainly got the press excited over the question of whether or not Harper Lee, who at the age of 88 has poor hearing and sight, truly wants to go ahead, given her staunch refusal for fify years to write another book.  It does seem too much of a coincidence that this change of heart has come only after the death of her protective sister.

The manuscript’s authenticity is not in doubt.  As the New York Times has reported, parts of the manuscript were read by family members back in the fifties.  Her oldest nephew is reported as saying: “It definitely was her writing, and it was never lost.  It obviously has been in the possession of the family.”

But does the fact that the miraculous ‘discovery’ of the book has probably been staged to gain maximum publicity mean also that Harper Lee has been pressured into releasing it for publication?  Yes, it is suspicious that her publisher now admits that he has never actually met the author face to face, and all dealings have been via her lawyer.  And yes, I have never heard of a publisher not making at least a courtesy call on a famous author.  But people do change their minds, so why not Harper Lee?  And when you are facing death perhaps it is rather comforting to have a last hurrah.

Many authors give instructions that at death all their correspondence and unpublished manuscripts are to be destroyed.  I think that is rather sad.  A person’s literary reputation is not going to be damaged by other manuscripts that may not be quite so superlative.  One of my favourite authors, J. D. Salinger, was notoriously reclusive, and I really wish he had published more.  His lengthy literary silence was almost certainly caused by a fear that nothing subsequently written could possibly match up to his masterpiece (as if anyone would expect it to).  Almost certainly, he was too harsh on himself.  For Esmé with Love and Squalor remains the second best short story I have ever read.

And of course other authors swing the other way.  My father in his final days made it absolutely clear to me that under no circumstances did he want his massive diaries, covering quarter of a century, or his manuscripts destroyed.  He hoped that one day they would be of value to other writers as background material.  Today, they sit lovingly preserved in boxes under my roof.