NEW YORK: A week after HarperCollins stunned the literary world with news that Harper Lee is publishing a second novel, controversy rages about whether the reclusive, 88-year-old novelist is of sound mind.
More than half a century after the mesmerizing success of her book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” fans and writers were both delighted and taken aback to hear that Lee was releasing another novel.
They were even more surprised to learn that it was a manuscript written 60 years ago and hidden away after an editor told the young novelist to recast the book into what become “Mockingbird.”
“Go Set a Watchman,” finished in the mid-1950s, features many of the same characters as “Mockingbird” and was discovered last year among her papers by lawyer Tonja Carter.
But could Lee, who had a stroke in 2007 and so often said she would never publish again, really be happy that a manuscript, long since discarded, was going to see the light of day?
Diane Roberts, an English professor at Florida State University who specializes in Southern culture, said the author probably never counted the manuscript when deciding against a second novel.
And her insistence on absolute privacy — her refusal to play publicity games, appear on chat shows and do interviews — allows others to fill the void with their own, speculative ideas.
“There’s just no way to judge it without talking to her,” Roberts told AFP. “And no one’s going to talk to her because even when she was in her best health, she was very private.”
It is well known that Lee has poor eye sight and is deaf. She has lived since 2007 in a nursing home in Monroeville, Alabama, where all requests for visits reportedly go through her lawyer.
Gossip blog Gawker quoted Carter as saying last July that her client sometimes signed things “she did not understand.”
Carter took on the role of Lee’s gatekeeper after the author’s fiercely protective sister Alice died last summer.
Tongues started wagging and Carter has been on the defensive, telling The New York Times that Lee is “extremely hurt and humiliated” by allegations that she has been manipulated.
“She is a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long lost novel,” Carter told the newspaper through emails and text messages.
“Instead, she is having to defend her own credibility and decision-making.”
Last week, Carter released an earlier statement telling fans that Lee is “happy as hell” about the new book.
US media has fallen on the story, quoting alleged friends and associates of Lee as attesting to her excitement and lucidity, or raising doubts and speculation.
Lee, who rarely speaks to the media, said via HarperCollins that she was “humbled and amazed” the manuscript was to be published after so many years.
“Go Set a Watchman” is already number one in the best-seller list at online bookstore Amazon, where the 304-page hardback is available for pre-order ahead of its July release.
NPR reported that Lee’s friend, Wayne Flynt, visited her the day before news of the book came out and said she was of sound mind.
“Does she understand what’s going on? If you make her hear, she can understand what’s going on,” he said on NPR. “Can she give informed consent? Absolutely, she can give informed consent.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” won the Pulitzer Price for its tale of racial injustice in the Great Depression-era South.
Published in 1960, is has become standard reading in American classrooms and has been translated into more than 40 languages, as well as adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck.
Roberts said that regardless of its merits, “Go Set a Watchman” will be of important literary and scholarly value.
“What’s in a writer’s mind is always interesting,” she told Agence France-Presse.
“Anything that makes people read is good and anything that makes people talk about race in this country is good.”