Wondering About Harper Lee

Friday, February 19, 2016
Harper Lee has died, leaving behind something that, as writers, we all aspire to…words that will live forever. To Kill a Mockingbird makes all the lists: must-read
classics, banned books, bestselling books, Pulitzer Prize winners, book most likely to be assigned by your high school English teacher.

Then just last year, long after it had become an accepted fact that Harper Lee would only publish one book an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was released. Although many people rushed to bookstores after waiting for this book for 55 years, I have not yet read Go Set a Watchman. So I cannot comment on the book's content. But I have thought about it. Not about reading it as much as about the circumstances of the publication. After a lifetime or privacy (the Greta Garbo of the literary world), in her golden years Lee was suddenly back in the spotlight. I wondered “Did she truly want this?” I worry that perhaps she didn’t but was just too tired to argue. It seemed strange to me that, at a time when people are becoming even more firmly set in their ways, Lee made an abrupt change. But I know nothing of Lee, her advisors or publishers. It is only something that makes me wonder.

If Lee is like every other writer I know she did not write just these two novels. There will be other journals, scribblings, abandoned short stories, finished works that just weren’t quite right in her eyes, perhaps even some truly horrible poetry (no reflection on Lee’s talent, just my own when it comes to poetry). Now that she is gone will we next see a publication of her personal diaries or other writings? Would she want that? I wonder.

I don’t know about all writers but I know I have a hard time parting with anything I’ve ever written (I have something in common with Harper Lee!). Even the manuscripts that my son would describe as “epic fails” are stuffed in the box under my bed or transferred to the “old files” file in my computer. And there they sit, waiting…for what? What if, after I die, my grandchildren decide to publish that horrible love triangle romance I wrote when I was 20 thinking “grandma would have wanted to see it published”? Of course this is less an issue for me than for writers who have made a name for themselves as successful writers. After a writer’s death should their heirs have the right to go under the bed to drag out the old manuscripts, crack the computer password to get to their files or peruse personal journals for publishable materials?

Can you save the your failed works and still prevent them from being published? Do you think a writer’s wishes about their work should be respected after their death?


Sioux Roslawski said...


I HAVE read "Go Set a Watchman" so I could comment on it... but I won't, out of respect of Harper Lee's earlier (published) work.

The timing of her second book coming out (when she was so old, and perhaps easily convince or not always lucid) DID make me suspicious.

Luckily, I am not a well-known writer. Luckily, my kids and grandkids know crappy writing when they see it, and won't ever try to publish the stuff I've saved. And luckily, my handwriting is legible only to me, so my journals are safe from the public eye as well.

Thanks, Jodi. You got me thinking about several issues...

Suzanne Lilly said...

I agree with you and Sioux, in that I was suspicious about her second book. Was she being taken advantage of, since Go Set a Watchman was something that probably shouldn't have seen the light of publishing day? Now she'll be remembered for one great work and one not so great. In my mind, this has done an injustice to her legacy. I think the only way for writers to protect themselves from having odds and ends and scraps published post mortem would be to write a will that clearly states what works should remain "under the bed." Wonderful post, as always, Jodi.

Cathy C. Hall said...

I suspect, since Harper Lee had an older lawyer sister who looked out for her interests for a lifetime, that her will protects her legacy. (I'm sure there will always be questions about her second book, but TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is such a classic that her legacy will survive and thrive.)

As for my own writing legacy, I don't worry too much about my heirs publishing any of my stinky stuff. They don't read the sweet stuff I've actually had published, so I think I'm safe. :-)

Judy H said...

Don't read it! Preserve the memories of To Kill a Mockingbird, unblemished. I made it to page 190 and threw it across the room.

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