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Beverly Beckham

To Kill a Masterpiece

Harper Lee kept the text of her first novel under lock and key for 58 years.rob caarr/associated press/ file 2007

It has as much drama and as many characters as a Russian novel and is almost as hard to follow, with all its twists and turns. An elderly woman with diminished capacity. A dead sister. A fired agent. A new agent. An old friend. A disgruntled author. A should-she-be-trusted trustee.

This is not the plot of the much-anticipated and very plodding “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s recently found first novel, which is for us, her second novel. (Hard to follow already!) It is the far more mesmerizing story of how this manuscript, which the author, now 89, kept under lock and key for 58 years, has suddenly found the light of day.


Lee was barely in her 30s when she wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel that catapulted this young Alabaman into literary stardom. For half a century, this book, which has sold more than 40 million copies, was thought to be her first and only.

But it wasn’t.

In a bank safe last August, Tonya B. Carter, the trustee of Lee’s estate, “found” “Go Set a Watchman,” says Carter. But it’s incorrect because the manuscript was not lost. It was deliberately kept locked up and out of sight.

Lee wrote “Go Set a Watchman” nearly 60 years ago. She sent it to publishers. Ten rejected it. Then one editor didn’t. Tay Hohoff saw something in Lee’s prose she liked: “It was real. The people walked solidly onto the pages.” Hohoff suggested that Lee change the time frame of her novel, that she tell her story in the first person and through the eyes of a child. Hohoff worked with Lee for 2½ years. It was “a long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again,” Lee once said. But the result was a Pulitzer Prize and a novel that both the publishing world and the public embraced.


A year after this great success, Lee suddenly stopped talking to the news media. Just like that. “When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more?” her sister, Alice, told journalist Marja Mills for a 2002 article in the Chicago Tribune. “Would you feel like you’re competing with yourself?” Fifteen years older and an attorney, Alice Lee became her sister’s gatekeeper. She handled her life, interceded, talked to reporters, and protected her sister for more than 50 years.

Alice Lee died last November. She was 103. Then, only a few months later, in a stunning reversal of her life’s stance, Harper Lee agreed to let a manuscript that didn’t pass muster 58 years ago be published.

Is it possible that Alice Lee was keeping her sister under lock and key for 50-plus years, that she wasn’t protecting her but shackling her? Is it possible that Harper Lee felt liberated by her sister’s death? Now I can finally publish my rejected first draft! Or was their relationship exactly what it appeared to be? That for all of Lee’s life, her sister was her ally?

In 2007, Harper Lee had a stroke. She lay on her floor for an entire day before friends found her. She’s lived in an assisted-living facility ever since. The Rev. Thomas Lane Butts of Monroeville Methodist Church, who used to take Lee for car rides every few weeks, told The Daily Telegraph, an Australian newspaper, in 2011 that Lee is “95 percent blind, profoundly deaf, bound to a wheelchair. Her short-term memory is completely shot.”


Butts also said that on one of their drives, Lee told him why she never wrote again: “Two reasons: One, 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.”

Money is the reason behind the publication of Lee’s never-meant-to-be-published book. Lots of money. Lots of people are going to get rich. Harper Lee will die a rich woman.

That’s not what she wanted, but it’s what everyone else wanted. And at 89, with diminished capacity, I doubt she was given a choice.

Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at