The Private Life and Lost Manuscript of Harper Lee

Some 58 years after it was initially submitted to her literary agent, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was released today. It has been a circuitous route to publication, to say the least. The book is an earlier draft of Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which most scholars and friends believed to be lost or destroyed; Lee herself had said as much. In either case, it was assumed that she had no intention of ever publishing it.

That all changed last fall, when Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, claimed to have discovered the manuscript in storage. That discovery was met with a mix of excitement and outrage. While many people have longed for more material from Lee—Mockingbird is her only published work—others questioned whether the 88-year-old who had suffered a severe stroke was being manipulated for profit.

But now that the novel is finally in readers’ hands, it turns out that the discovery and subsequent publication of the manuscript are only the beginning of its surprises. Even though it was written first, Watchman is set after Mockingbird and narrated in third person. The grown “Scout” Finch, who now goes by Jean Louise, has returned to Maycomb, Alabama to find that her father Atticus—who once risked his life for racial justice in his community—has become a racist. That fact alone seems to have divided readers as much as the publication history.

As you prepare to read Watchman, or don’t, listen to our interview with Marja Mills, who was herself the subject of some controversy after befriending Lee and her sister and then publishing a book about it. She spoke with Steve Paulson last year.

Photo courtesy of Penguin Group USA

On Our Minds: Life With Harper Lee

In 2001, reporter Marja Mills met the celebrated and notoriously private author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee. The two struck up a friendship and, a few years after their first meeting, the two became neighbors. Mills writes about their friendship in her new memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door.”

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