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Go Set the Record Straight: Harper Lee’s New Novel, Cui Bono?

I have not read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and will not be reviewing it in my Friday book column. There are simply too many questionable details about the novel that have unsettled me and left me dubious about the entire production.

First, why was the book suddenly “discovered” if it has been in Lee’s bank vault all those years? (There is now word that there may still be another book, yet to be published, suggesting the birth of an entire Mockingbird cottage industry.)

Second, since Lee’s sister, Alice, was against the publication of the book, how does it happen that the book has been published after her recent death?

Third, since Lee is old and infirm—she is 89 years old and barely able to see or hear—how can she supposedly have made so many comments concerning the manuscript that has just been published?

Fourth—and this is my major question—who stands to benefit financially by the publication of the novel? Lee, certainly, doesn’t need the money; royalties on To Kill a Mockingbird, we are told, still add up to several million dollars a year. Will the additional money enhance the quality of her life in the gosetwatchmannursing home where she resides?

Fifth—and this is my speculation, now that reviewers have revealed that Atticus Finch as depicted in Go Set a Watchman is a racist—what does this fact reveal about Lee herself, given that the original novel was submitted to J. P. Lippincott, rejected, and several years later morphed into To Kill a Mockingbird? My speculation is prompted by an article in The Wall Street Journal on Friday (July 17th) which states that “data miners” have concluded that Go Set a Watchman is almost totally Lee’s own writing but that To Kill a Mockingbird is not. According to the data miners’ linguistic analysis, Mockingbird was heavily edited (or rewritten) by someone—Lee’s editor at Lippincott?—and that “Writing and rewriting ‘Mockingbird’ kept the author and her editor [Tay Hohoff] locked in a creative struggle.” Is it possible that Hohoff altered the racist Finch so that he became the beloved character of Mockingbird that so many people admire—ergo, to the extent that many readers do not intend to have their admiration compromised by reading the just-released novel? Was it Lee’s editor who replaced the bigoted Atticus with the more benign character?

Finally, how much money do the two beneficiaries—Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer/agent, and HarperCollins (her publisher) stand to make from the publication of Go Set a Watchman?

Follow the money.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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