Newsmaker: Harper Lee

The American’s first novel was one of the 20th century’s favourite bestsellers, but everyone thought it was a one-off. Its sequel has just hit the stores, disappointing fans and critics alike.

Harper Lee by Kagan McLeod
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A security guard keeps watch outside the nursing home where writer Harper Lee resides in Monroeville, Alabama. At 89 years old, and disabled after suffering a stroke eight years ago, Lee herself is no flight risk. The officer’s remit is less to keep the famed author in, than to keep others out.

Twenty-four-hour protection may not be commonplace for octogenarians in nursing homes in Alabama – but none house a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who just this week released one of the most eagerly awaited blockbuster novels with a – hold on to your hats – US print run of two million.

Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and so often labelled with the "one-hit wonder" tag (the kind that sells 40 million copies worldwide) has been a cult figure to many aspiring writers ever since her iconic novel was published in 1960. Her sequel – coming 55 years later – is Go Set a Watchman. The most pre-ordered title on Amazon since the final Harry Potter book and subject to the sort of social -media hype that would make most writers sick with envy, Go Set a Watchman began its final journey to publishing sensation when Lee's lawyer discovered it with the original Mockingbird manuscript in a safety deposit box.

To Kill a Mockingbird, to the very few people who haven't read the book or seen the film, is the story of a white lawyer in the 1930s struggling to defend a wrongly-accused black man in America's Deep South. It is told through the eyes of the lawyer's young daughter, Scout, for whom her father, Atticus Finch, is an unbending symbol of moral courage and virtue. Finch's heroic stature was fixed in the public imagination by the stern figure of Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation.

But while readers and the literary world have been rightly ­enthused and exercised by its ­arrival, the publication of Watchman, written before Mockingbird, has caused many to fear for the future of Finch’s saintly reputation.

Discarded by Lee after her editor persuaded her to convert some of the book's flashback scenes into a separate novel that soon became Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman tells the story of a 20-something Scout returning to her southern home to visit her ailing father in the 1950s. With a marriage proposal on her mind, Scout – or Jean Louise Finch, as she now is – finds her father far removed from the virtuous figure so celebrated in Lee's 1960 work. Far from espousing ­racial tolerance, Atticus Finch is a ­racist with associations to the Ku Klux Klan.

In one sentence from Watchman, Scout's father opines: "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?"

Such convictions, even expressed by a fictitious character, will not only be a dagger through the heart of millions who thought Finch a moral crusader, but will no doubt occupy an uneasy spot in a modern America that, given recent events, still has racist struggles on its mind.

The woman causing such wild literary frenzy was born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28, 1926, in the same small town where she still resides. The youngest of four children, Lee – a tomboy by all accounts – lived with her ­lawyer-politician father and mother, who, widely believed to have had bipolar disorder, rarely left the house.

As a child she became acquainted with Truman Persons – who would later evolve into the writer Truman Capote. With difficult home lives, both Truman and Lee developed an unusual but enduring friendship: Lee, tougher than many of the boys in her neighbourhood, would often act as her friend’s guardian, defending the eccentric and sensitive boy, who had largely been abandoned by his parents, from taunts.

English literature grabbed Lee's attention at school and ­after graduating in 1944 she was accepted at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama – an all-female institute. Shunning make-up and fashion, she immersed herself in her studies. Leaving college, she made her way to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa where she pursued her interest in literature. Her love of writing continued to develop and Lee, very much her own woman, began contributing to the university magazine, the Rammer Jammer, eventually becoming its editor.

In her junior year she embarked on a law degree, but the increasing workload forced her to abandon her position as editor of the Rammer Jammer. Yet, her talent for writing – not to mention her literary appetite – caused her to question her choice of degree. At her father's suggestion she left American shores for England's Oxford University in the summer of 1948 as an international exchange student. Her father hoped it would focus her mind.

"By spring of 1948, it was obvious to Mr Lee that his youngest daughter wasn't showing anywhere near the same enthusiasm about practising law that [her older sister] Alice had," wrote Charles J Shields in his book, I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee. "So he agreed to provide an incentive – one that would acknowledge Nelle's love of literature. Perhaps, he reasoned, she should have an experience that showed what a well-paying career like practising law could provide, including the means to travel and write on the side."

Yet Lee’s trip only served to ­alienate her further from the law – and propel her more into writing. No sooner had Lee returned to law school, than she duly dropped out. In 1949, in her early 20s, Lee moved to New York to follow her dream. But she struggled to make a living writing and had to work as a ticket agent to keep herself.

But she again hooked up with her childhood friend Truman Capote, who had become a rising star of the American literary world. Fortune came to pass in 1956 when Lee, having befriended a Broadway composer and his wife, was given financial help from the couple to help fund her writing. Now full-time, Lee found herself an agent and collaborated with Capote in an article he was writing about the murder of four members of the same family in Kansas. The approachable Lee, better able to relate to the Kansas locals than her ostentatious and curious friend, provided some much-needed assistance to ­Capote, whose story would soon develop into the non-fiction hit, In Cold Blood.

By 1960, however, Lee was soon enjoying the fruits of her own labour. To Kill a Mockingbird was seen as something more profound than the story of a little girl and her lawyer father – characters not so unlike Lee and her own father. Indeed, as a novel depicting racial injustice in the Deep South, the book won the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was made into a film one year later. The movie earned eight Academy Award nominations, with Gregory Peck winning a Best Actor award – and soon a whole new generation of fans were being seduced by Lee's stunning work.

Another novel failed to materialise but Lee continued her partnership with Capote, though In Cold Blood was not published until 1966. Capote dedicated the book to Lee and another but omitted to mention her contributions to the work. While this put the two writers at odds, they remained friends until his death in the 1980s.

Although Lee took up an offer from then US president, Lyndon B Johnson, to serve on the National Council of the Arts, she lived out the 1970s and 80s in relative obscurity, with her older lawyer sister Alice taking care of her legal affairs and Lee herself donating some of the proceeds of Mockingbird to charitable causes.

In 2007, the US president George W Bush awarded Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and that same year she suffered a debilitating stroke.

Lee filed various lawsuits involving her iconic book, including one against the Monroe County Heritage Museum for trying "to capitalise on the fame" of Mockingbird, but in 2014 she gave her permission to publish her novel as an e-book.

Yet, when HarperCollins announced in February 2015 that another Lee novel was in the offing – what's more, a sequel to her 1960 contribution – the literary world went into meltdown. Had she given her permission for Watchman to be published? Or, now elderly and infirm, had her hand been forced? When Lee released a statement confirming the former through her lawyer some still saw dark forces at work.

But such conjecture has been overtaken by the book’s treatment of Finch and its worth as a piece of literature. As Twitter readily reveals, Atticus Finch’s fall from grace has deeply hurt his legion of admirers.

But, what of the books' literary merits? Barely edited from its manuscript form, Watchman is, say many critics, clumsy in parts, and for many serious literary observers, the reasons that it was rejected in the first place are clear.

For some, then, this time capsule of a novel would have better been forgotten. For others, however, its emergence is a glorious discovery. But, as a literary bomb, its short-term impact has already been devastating.