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Say It Isn’t So, Ms. Lee

The Ethics of Publishing an Elderly Writer’s Controversial Work


The unimaginable in the world of fiction happened last month. After 55 years of nearly total silence, Harper Lee, the country’s most well-known one-book author, published a so-called long “lost” novel supposedly written before her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. This is a tectonic shift in the literary world and beyond, considering that Mockingbird is one of most beloved American novels and the new book challenges its ethos.

Ben Bycel

Should we all rush out to buy Go Set a Watchman?

Absolutely not.

I did, and I was deeply disappointed, not just by the poor writing and non-story but also because the book radically changes the character of Atticus Finch, the hero of the Pulitzer-winning Mockingbird. The book, set in the early 1960s, 20 years after Mockingbird takes place, paints Atticus as a racist.

The publication is not just a literary disaster but also an ethical one. While any author has the right to change her protagonist’s arc, the idea that Harper Lee would want it published now, 55 years later, feels like an unethical hoax perpetrated by those who stand to make a fortune from this newly “found” novel.

Here is a sampling of what Atticus Finch has symbolized for generations of Americans.

• Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times on July 10, 2015, describes Atticus Finch as the moral compass of the book: “He is kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity, who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s.”

• In 2003, the American Film Institute named Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the movie, as America’s greatest movie hero. The American Bar Association called him “America’s favorite fictional lawyer.”

• Law professors across the country have reported that the fictional Atticus Finch has motivated more students to attend law school than any other person.

So why would an 89-old-year writer, who is frail, hearing impaired, and suffered a stroke in 2007 when living in a nursing home, decide to publish a second novel 55 years later that radically changes the her iconic character Atticus Finch?

Could it have been for money?

Hardly. Mockingbird sold over 30 million copies in 40 languages.

Did Lee publish it for the fame? I doubt it, given that she spent more than half a century religiously avoiding the spotlight. She didn’t give “one hoot” about being famous.

Watchman is neither a sequel nor a prequel. I do not believe Harper Lee would want to publish a disjointed, poorly written series of pages glued into a book cover. (For counter viewpoints, read “A Personal Take on ‘Go Set a Watchman’” by Ursula K. Le Guin in bookviewcafe.com and Sweet Home Alabama by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker.)

So how and why did this book get published?

Many critics (literary and otherwise) have suggested there is a financial scandal behind all this, pointing the finger at Lee’s lawyer (Harper’s sister, who had been her lawyer, died last year), her agent, and the publisher — HarperCollins — owned by the notoriously unethical Rupert Murdock?

The ethical misconduct, if not criminal behavior, has to do with Harper Lee’s participation in the publication of Watchman or whether she could understand, given her physical and mental condition, what was being asked of her. It’s no coincidence that the book was published after the death of Lee’s sister, her lifelong protector.

Others who believe that Lee wrote this book and wanted it published now argue that she wanted to set the record straight on the great American hero she created. Did she craft Atticus as a racist and portray him as one in this alleged first book 55 years ago? Only to be told by her then editor that Atticus’s character had to be a hero, someone willing to defend a black man accused of rape?

Can these people actually believe that for all these years, while millions looked to Atticus as the personification of bravery and honestly, Harper Lee sat quietly thinking we readers and fans have it all wrong?

In her fading years of life, did Lee decide to set the record straight about Atticus Finch, a man modeled after her father?

Does this mean in publishing the new (or old) book that Lee is saying: “Hey you millions of readers who believed that Atticus was a brave and honest man, he really was a racist like all those folks back then. Maybe a little better but still not an honorable man. Basically he was a bigot. I tried to write it that way, but they wouldn’t publish it back then. Now I can finally tell you the real story.”

This scenario is pure fantasy, especially given how Lee felt about her father, whom the character was patterned after, and her few comments about civil rights over the years.

In Mockingbird, published five-and-half decades ago, Lee wrote Atticus as a hero — maybe a more torn and ambivalent one, but still a hero. Watchman at best may be either earlier disregarded notes on a novel or a later draft of a book never published.

A surging critical outcry across the country is taking place over the publication of Watchman. According to the Detroit Free Press, Brilliant Books in Traverse City is offering refunds to its customers who bought the newly released Harper Lee novel: “The owner of the bookstore said the volume is ‘not a sequel or a prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Neither is it a new book.”

On its website, the bookstore calls the so-called new book, the second book, “a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected” and urges its customers not to think of it as “a nice summer novel.”

Joe Nocera, a NYT columnist is equally hard on the book. He called the publication of the new (old) book one of the “epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.”

If Watchman had not been incessantly hyped (3.3 million copies printed) and millions of dollars spent on shrill publicity, hailing the discovery of a lost American treasure I think the book would already been on the electronic second’s table at Amazon, selling for a few bucks.

Unfortunately we don’t have Harper Lee’s voice to set the record straight.

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to streetethics@independent.com.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to a thoughtful reader, the decade of Watchman has been corrected to 1960s from 1980s.

Read more Street Ethics columns here.



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