Mockingbird Metamorphosis

In her recent post on Boomer Connection,  the author of  Not My Favorite Author You Don’t  writes about her favorite author (and mine), Harper Lee, expressing her concern that the lawyer representing Ms Lee and announcing the publication of a so-called sequel to Harper Lee’s 1st (and only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, might be, in fact, MIS-representing the frail writer. After a stroke and other medical problems, Ms Lee is confined to a wheelchair in an assisted-living facility, her hearing and eyesight seriously compromised if not totally gone, and her memory not what it once was. Boomer Connection is worried that publication of this ‘sequel’ is NOT what Harper Lee would want. Because:

  1. Harper Lee, when asked about other novels, has always indicated that she would not publish another novel because in To Kill a Mockingbird she had already said everything she intended to say. Why would she not want to continue to build a brilliant career (decades ago)? Perhaps, she really HAD said all she had to say. Or, perhaps, like so many writers, she was afraid that she could never top this greatest of novels. Or maybe she didn’t want to use the same characters at a different time in their lives (we’re told that her original story, the so-called sequel, revolved around adult versions of these characters and her publisher suggested telling her story from a child’s viewpoint). If she loved Scout and Gem and the others as much as we, her readers, did and do, maybe she didn’t have the heart to create new characters, themes, and plots of a lesser light. Or, knowing that she remained pretty much a recluse for most of her life, I wonder if she never published another novel because she feared the publicity and the public eye of strangers.
  2. This announcement comes hot on the heels of the death of Ms Lee’s beloved older sister, who had cared for Lee and protected her from the scoundrels who would take advantage of her. This is highly suspicious. If publication is truly what Ms Lee wants, why did this lawyer wait until her sister’s demise to make this ‘discovery’? Seems like the beginning of a murder mystery. Not that the sister’s death was in any way suspicious, but the timing is suspect, especially in light of concerns expressed here and elsewhere. If I were Sherlock, I’d follow the money to see who benefits from this publication, which is scheduled for a first printing of 2,000,000 copies. Get a forensic lawyer (if they have those), a medical team, and a forensic accountant to examine this case and see if something slithers out of the upholstery.
  3. Another lawyer, Lee’s ‘trusted’ associate, had in recent years tricked Ms Lee into signing away her rights to TKAM and any other works and this piece of excrement had purloined quite a bit of money from Ms Lee. A court case against this reprehensible individual was resolved in Ms Lee’s favor fairly recently. When you have something of value, anything, there are people in this world who would happily deceive you, trick you, gain power over you in order to enrich themselves. It’s reasonable to wonder whether her current lawyer is one of the good guys or  just another ravening cockroach.
  4. With her health issues–stroke, hearing and vision loss, problems with memory–others have indicated that Harper Lee would sign any paper put in front of her. Boomer rightly asks if Ms Lee has someone else who could step in to make sure the elderly writer is in fact competent to sign the documents the lawyer used to enable publication of this ‘sequel.’ Without her sister, who is protecting Ms Lee? We’ve all seen too many stories like this in which an ailing person is abused or robbed or otherwise taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals. She might have caring and excellent doctors and nurses doing their best for her, but someone from the outside should look into this case. Is it presumptuous of us to suspect nefarious doings when Ms Lee might have simply changed her mind about the 2nd novel, after all these years? Or is she or her legacy in danger?

Until someone can prove that Harper Lee really and truly is competent to make this decision, and has indeed, chosen to publish, I think ethically we should hold our collective horses. I have loved To Kill a Mockingbird since I 1st read it when I was young; even the movie is a favorite–one of the few films that is true to the book and fulfills its aim. It makes me cry to think of its author being bamboozled, yet it also makes me cry to think that she has a sequel that she wants to–or, worse, doesn’t want to–share with her millions of fans. I am torn between concern for her and desire to read another line Ms Lee has written. Even if the sequel isn’t as good–really, how could it be?–I still want to hear Lee’s voice, I want to be immersed in her bygone South, I want to be part of Scout’s and Gem’s ‘posse.’

I began this blog intending to compare what’s happening with Harper Lee’s ‘sequel’ to the ethical questions raised when a so-called friend and advisor deliberately ignores the author’s wishes and publishes his/her work after the author has passed.

I thought immediately of Emily Dickinson, another recluse, who wrote 1775 poems but only published 7 in her lifetime–anonymously–and who expected that her poems would be burned along with her letters. Her sister did burn Dickinson’s correspondence, but the treasure trove she found in Emily’s trunk was such a wonderful surprise that she copied Emily’s poems and published them because she thought the world deserved to read them.

I also thought of Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Jew living in a Czech-speaking area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who asked his friend Max Brod to burn all of his manuscripts. Brod broke that oath, choosing instead to publish Kafka’s brilliant works, even though they were unfinished. In both situations, those who had sworn that they would honor a writer’s wishes, to destroy his/her work, violated their oaths, to enable readers the world over to be enriched by their poetry or prose.

Do readers have a right to read what an author or a poet does not want anyone else to see? Isn’t the world a richer place with Dickinson’s still, small voice? How many readers with their own struggles with loneliness and alienation have been comforted by Kafka’s identification with the lonely, lost, alienated individual? Imagine what your life would be like had Harper Lee never published To Kill a Mockingbird. She enriched my life in ways immeasurable, unfathomable. So, I’m torn, as I said, between concern for her and her previously expressed wishes NOT to publish a sequel, and my selfish thirst for one more swallow of the cool, clean water of Lee’s prose.

© Copyright 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD