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'Go Set a Watchman' sparks new attention for private Harper Lee

Many of us enjoy peaks in our careers, but very few people see a second, soaring peak at age 89.

Harper Lee is one of them.

Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for To Kill a Mockingbird, her debut novel. It sold 40 million copies and became an award-winning movie as well as one of the most widely read and beloved books in American literature.

She never published another book and, over the years, insisted she never would.

Her multitude of fans contented themselves with Mockingbird — until this year, when international rejoicing met the announcement of another novel.

On July 14, 55 years after Lee's first book, Go Set a Watchman will be published, with a first printing of 2 million copies. She wrote it in 1957, before Mockingbird, and Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is its main character. In Watchman, Scout is an adult living in New York City, going home to visit her father, Atticus. When Lee submitted Watchman to her publisher, her editor suggested she rewrite it to focus on Scout's childhood — and Mockingbird was hatched.

Watchman was forgotten, and Lee stopped giving interviews in 1964. She has, in the intervening years, lived a very private life in New York and her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., where since suffering a stroke in 2007 she has been in an assisted living home.

In February her publisher, Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, announced that the manuscript of Watchman had been rediscovered and that it would see print in July.

The book immediately soared to the top of bestseller lists at Amazon.com and other online booksellers and has become the most preordered book in HarperCollins' history. (HarperCollins publishes, among other big bestsellers, Veronica Roth's Divergent series and books by Neil Gaiman, Patricia Cornwell and Dennis Lehane.)

On June 1, Robert Thomson, chief executive of HarperCollins' parent company News Corp., declined to provide sales figures but said Lee's book had broken preorder records and "won't need much marketing."

Even controversy about how the book had been brought to light didn't slow down its sales. Communication about it between Lee and her publisher all went through her lawyer, Tonja Carter, formerly an associate in the law firm of Lee's sister, Alice Finch Lee, who died in November. Questions were raised by some of her friends and in the media about whether Harper Lee, who had long vowed not to publish another book, had really given permission for this one. In April, an investigation by the Alabama Department of Human Resources found that allegations of elder abuse were "unfounded" and that Lee was competent to give consent.

Lee maintains her privacy despite the attention focused on her. The new Alabama Writers Hall of Fame held a banquet in Tuscaloosa on June 8 to honor its inaugural class of a dozen writers. Lee was one of them, but she did not attend the event. Her family and friends filled two tables, organizers said, but did not speak to the media.

Such deference to Lee's wish for privacy might have played a role when six of her letters to a friend went up for auction at Christie's in New York on June 12. Expected to bring $250,000, the letters were not sold; Christie's said that bids did not meet the reserve amount. The New York Times reported that bidding began at $80,000 but stopped at $90,000.

Personal letters by Lee, by all accounts a prolific correspondent, rarely come on the market because many of those who have received them respect her wish for privacy. These six were written in the late 1950s and early '60s to one of her friends, New York architect Harold Caufield. One letter includes her reaction to the success of Mockingbird: "We were surprised, stunned & dazed by the Princeton Review," she wrote. "I haven't recovered my voice on the subject enough to say anything."

A member of Caufield's family sold the letters to a book dealer after his death; the dealer sold them to collector Paul Kennerson, a retired California lawyer, who offered them at auction.

Although it's not possible to know why the letters did not sell, perhaps bidders thought the price too high, or perhaps some of them were put off by acquiring letters written by someone who has made it clear she doesn't want her private life made public. Before the auction, HarperCollins president Michael Morrison told the New York Times, "I'm sure she would be disappointed that letters she wrote to a friend are being sold as some sort of memorabilia."

Even fans who respect Lee's desire to stay out of the spotlight, though, are eager to read Go Set a Watchman. That includes book critics, who, HarperCollins insists, will not get early copies of the novel. They'll be reading it along with millions of others.

One person who has read it, though, is documentary filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy, author of Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Her 2012 film, Harper Lee: Hey Boo, was part of the PBS American Masters series, and an updated version of it will be broadcast at 9 p.m. July 10 on WEDU-Ch. 3.

In a release from PBS, Murphy said, "Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and believed to be lost or destroyed. Its remarkable discovery allows readers of Lee's beloved classic the chance to see Atticus and Scout again. How and why this happened is a mystery we unravel in the new version of the documentary." She will live-tweet (#HarperLeePBS) during the broadcast.

Although we won't be likely to find out what Lee might think of Twitter, perhaps the updated documentary will answer some of the questions about Go Set a Watchman. There's no doubt it will further whet our appetites for a new book from Harper Lee.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

'Go Set a Watchman' sparks new attention for private Harper Lee 06/23/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2015 10:13am]
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