The 'To Kill A Mockingbird' Sequel Controversy

by Caitlin White

In case you have been so buried in snow that you were unable to reach the Internet yesterday, you might not know that Harper Lee will publish Go Set a Watchman , the To Kill a Mockingbird sequel in July 2015. The news basically broke the Internet. Lee has been famously reclusive (at least when it comes to the media) for decades, and it has been 55 years since she published her novel, which has become, perhaps, one of the greatest American novels of all time. I hinted yesterday that some people are worried behind the scenes about Lee's failing health, after all she is 88, and her state of mind on deciding to publish Go Set a Watchman more than five decades after she wrote it. It seems that the debate on Lee's involvement in the decision is getting even more heated.

Lee — who her friends and family know not as Harper, but as Nelle — grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, which is considered the basis for To Kill a Mockingbird's Maycomb, Alabama. (More on that later.) Nelle did make appearances after publishing her first and only novel, but she was upfront and clear that she did not plan to publish another book. In a 2011 interview with Nelle's close friend Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts of the Monroeville Methodist Church, she said it as clearly as anyone could muster:

I espoused two or three ideas. I said maybe you didn't want to compete with yourself. She said, "Bullshit. Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again."

This was less than four years ago. In that time, there has been a marked change in Nelle's family and affairs: Her beloved sister Alice, who was also her lawyer, passed away. Power went to Alice's successor in the family firm, Tonja Carter, who in the past couple years has restricted Nelle's visitors and sued both Nelle's longtime literary agent and the small, local courthouse museum for what she believed was benefiting off To Kill a Mockingbird's fame. Both moves were considered out of character for Nelle, who shied away from publicity.

And, oh yes, Nelle's visitors. Even her former editor at HarperCollins (who learned about the sequel around the same time we all did) admits that it's hard to speak to Nelle because she lives in a nursing home and is suffering from several ailments:

Has there been any direct contact about the book between Harper and HarperCollins? Or is it all done through intermediaries? Are you asking if we've been in touch with her directly?Specifically about the release of this book, yes.I don’t know, but I don’t think so, only because she’s very deaf and going blind. So it’s difficult to give her a phone call, you know? I think we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say, "HarperCollins would like to do this and do that," and get her permission. That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.

That should at least give all of us readers pause. Indeed, according to a friend, after a 2007 stroke, Nelle is 95 percent blind, "profoundly deaf," and wheelchair-bound. The friend adds that her short-term memory is "completely shot."

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

I want to be clear that I'm not saying Harper Lee is being exploited. I sincerely hope she's as thrilled and excited (and okay, probably a little nervous) as the rest of us are about putting more To Kill a Mockingbird and our beloved Scout into the world. But it seems to go against her vehement opinions about publicity and publishing a second novel that she has stated for years now, and you have to wonder why the change of heart. It's likely that we'll never know really what happened behind the scenes of this decision, and maybe that's just the way Harper Lee likes things.