The news this week that Harper Lee would release a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird has now turned decidedly ugly.
Alabama.com — the website of the Birmingham News — is reporting today that Lee, 88, was manipulated into the decision and can no longer make decisions on her own.
Monroeville lawyer Tonja Carter has long represented Lee and has power of attorney over her affairs. But area residents who know the writer say that Carter has in recent years taken steps to keep her from seeing her friends and family, and become increasingly litigious on her behalf in a way that they do not believe Lee would have supported when she was younger and more alert.
Janet Sawyer, owner of the Courthouse Café in Monroeville’s compact town square, said she believes that Carter has taken even greater control over her life in the short time since her protective sister, Alice Lee, died in November at the age of 103.
Sawyer believes that the decision to publish “Go Set a Watchman,” described as a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” later this year was made by Carter alone. Carter did not respond to repeated telephone and email requests for comment Wednesday.
“I don’t think she agreed to do it. I think it’s her attorney being greedy, because Ms. Lee was a very private person who didn’t like a lot of publicity,” Sawyer said.
“She had a stroke several years ago and her mind is not in a condition to make these decisions, I don’t think, personally. Tonja Carter doesn’t allow her to see her friends anymore. She’s isolated her from the world in order to manipulate her.”
Another friend, however, told NPR that Lee knows what’s going on. Sort of.
“If you make her hear, she can understand what’s going on,” Wayne Flynt said. “Can she give informed consent? Absolutely, she can give informed consent. She knows what she likes, who she likes, what she doesn’t like. Mainly, she doesn’t like people to disturb her and interrupt her privacy and probe in her personal business.”
The BBC is reporting that Lee, herself, is dismissing the concerns, citing a statement she issued.
“I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman,” it said.
Writing in the New York Times today, however, Jessa Crispin, the editor in chief of Bookslut, says Lee shouldn’t release the book, despite the clamor by her fans.
The contemporary literary gatekeepers do not believe in gods (except perhaps for David Foster Wallace) and they enjoy tearing down false idols. There is a very good chance that this work, rejected by Ms. Lee’s original editor in the ’50s, may be substandard. And some critics say it’s not entirely clear that the 88-year-old Ms. Lee actually decided to publish this work herself.
It would be nice to think that whatever happens with “Go Set a Watchman,” even if the book really is not good at all, Ms. Lee’s place in literary history — and that of “Mockingbird” — will remain intact. We may not be able to remember anything from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” follow-ups, but their failures do not move the original’s place from our hearts. The canon, however, is a fickle thing. What is classic one moment is outdated or surprisingly flawed the next.