Nelle Harper Lee circa 1962 via Wiki CommonsWhen Oprah Winfrey asked Harper Lee why she never wrote another book after the award-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee responded, “Honey, because I said everything I wanted to say.”
This small, obscure, quote has quietly inspired me since I read it in a long forgotten column or article, probably as I desperately searched for another Harper Lee book to be consumed by. It moves me, because the statement commands us to offer only what we feel we need to, and not an ounce more. Harper Lee told the story she wanted to tell, and after trying to write a few more novels after, eventually chose to retire from writing.
She didn’t want to clog the world up with words and noise that she didn’t feel had value. Harper Lee wanted Mockingbird to be her story, the sole written legacy of her life that would remain on this earth as a snapshot of the world as she saw it.
That’s what Harper Lee wanted, as well as any outsider could possibly tell before this week.
Now, her publisher has announced that a second novel, a sequel to Mockingbird, is set to be released. This book is said to have been written before Mockingbird, starring many of the familiar characters we grew to love while reading Harper Lee’s first (and currently only) book.
If all that is true, Harper Lee knew about this “sequel” years and years and years after she published Mockingbird. She knew about that sequel every single day for the last fifty years, but chose not to publish it. Maybe because she had “said everything she wanted to say.”
In 2011, Rev Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, who is a close friend to Harper Lee, told the Daily Telegraph that Harper Lee had shared with him her two reasons for not writing another novel:
“[…] I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again’.”
In 2013, Harper Lee settled a lawsuit in which it was alleged that she was “duped” into signing over copyright ownership to literary agent Samuel Pinkus after she had suffered a stroke, was plagued with memory loss, and was hard of hearing. While this incident may very well be more complicated than initially meets the eye, I see it as an elderly and infirm Harper Lee being taken advantage of by someone who was seeking to make money off her brilliance. So, you might understand why I am concerned about the potential of Harper Lee being taken advantage of once more, which is what leads me to feeling very uneasy about her sequel, Go Set a Watchman.
Harper Lee’s editor, Hugh Van Dusen, was directly asked in an interview with Vulture Magazine whether there had been any direct communication between HarperCollins Publishers (who will publish the sequel) and Harper Lee, to which he replied:
“I don’t know, but I don’t think so, only because she’s very deaf and going blind. So it’s difficult to give her a phone call, you know? I think we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say HarperCollins would like to do this and do that and get her permission. That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.”
For the record, that’s not an answer that in any way reassures someone like me who isn’t exactly certain that Lee truly wants this book published. This is only one of many concerning moments from the Van Dusen interview which a Toast column outlines.
I only know Harper Lee as well as any of her readers possibly could. I have never spoken to her, never written her, never even seen her in person. My assumptions about this situation could be dead wrong. But my assumptions are that Harper Lee is having her true wishes disregarded by people who are looking to make a whole lot of money.
“I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”
There is something so quietly remarkable about this declaration. It is the statement of a gifted artist who chose to put everything into one complete masterpiece that said everything she wanted to say. It is akin to a politician who serves only one term, fully devoted to the common people, a composer who writes only one tear jerking song, or an athlete who steps back after one perfect season.
I am not suggesting that the world would be best served if all masters of their trade stepped back after their first success. But there is a beauty to it, a certain elegant humility that our world might need a little more of in lieu of our obsessive careers where pursuit of money and ruthless ladder climbs are the only barometers of success.
But even if all of that is sentimental bullshit, there remains the matter of Harper Lee’s true wishes, wishes that I believe she made clear over the course of the recent decades. Decades where she consciously chose not to publish her prequel, which she absolutely did not just “forget” about.
The decision to suddenly publish a book she left sitting on a shelf for at least 50 years does not sound like Harper Lee to me. It doesn’t sound like the humble author who “said all she needed to say”, who used public transit, lived in a modest apartment and abhorred unnecessary fame and flaunted fortunes. Rather, it sounds much more like those surrounding her, who do enjoy unnecessary attention and flaunted fortunes.
It is possible that Harper Lee actively changed her mind and decided she wanted to be heard one more time. It is possible. But in my heart of hearts, somehow I just doubt it.