Found in the Attic(us): Ageism, Lost Manuscripts, and Harper Lee

It has been a dizzying couple of days for lovers of literature. First came the thrilling news—the miraculous news, even—that Harper Lee’s “second novel,” Go Set A Watchman, has survived intact for more than 60 years and is about to be published. It is, in fact, Harper Lee’s novel of an adult Scout, written before To Kill A Mockingbird, and it will forever change how we read the greatest novel in American literature. At 304 pages, Go Set A Watchman will more than double, overnight, the literary output of America’s greatest novelist.

This is the biggest and best literary news that could happen in our lifetime. To a scholar of 20th-century American literature, this is as big as finding a lost second epic by the Beowulf author would be to a medievalist. Turn that over in your head for a moment.

Now, the honeymoon of that press release is over. All across the Internet, from The Toast to The Guardian, sceptical questions are emerging about Lee’s level of involvement in the publication, about the author’s wishes, about her possible exploitation. All of these are valid concerns, and I’ll try to address them as well as anyone else who has zero firsthand information. But the last ethical question, and perhaps the most outlandish, is the question of what should actually be done with the manuscript.

The novel must be published. Thankfully, the novel will be published. Debating the ethics of that, at this point, is like debating the ethics of a hurricane. It’s happening; there is no stopping it; and the only thing to debate is the ethics of what people do in its aftermath.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of the valid ethical questions surrounding Go Set A Watchman’s publication. But the immense cultural value of this novel can and must weigh against them. Franz Kafka is probably the most infamous writer whose wishes to destroy his work were ignored. But have you heard of Virgil? If you have, it’s only because his deathbed wishes to burn The Aeneid were completely disrespected. Two thousand years of Western literature has shown us how lucky we are that Virgil’s wishes were ignored. You can take or leave Harold Bloom’s view of the canon, but you can’t argue how much we would have lost without The Aeneid.

Is Go Set A Watchman as important to literary history as The Aeneid? Probably not. And yet it’s probably more important than one more CD worth of scratchy, unfinished demo reels dredged up from rejected Beatles tapes. This is a finished product; it was meant for publication, and the story of the manuscript confirms that, as a young woman of sound mind, Harper Lee did indeed mean to publish it.

In the best-case scenario, to carry the Beatles analogy forward, imagine for a moment that the Beatles released only one album, Please Please Me… and then one day a single master of Sgt. Pepper resurfaced. In this case, the unpublished work is the earlier and rougher one. But even in the worst-case scenario, imagine that only Sgt. Pepper is attested, and then someone finds Please Please Me. Perhaps not as mind-blowing a discovery, given what we already know from the extant masterpiece—but it would still change everything. And from the story now circulating, this novel was the original product. To Kill A Mockingbird was the book published only with substantial editorial pressures. Whether that made it a better masterpiece remains to be seen. But the new book is Lee undistilled, before she was leaned on by a 1950s publisher, and there’s equal chance for either one to be the better work as a result.

The complex situation of the novel stems mainly from the sheer hugeness of this discovery, along with the past reticence and present infirmity of its living author. By all accounts, the 88-year-old Harper Lee (still a spring chicken compared to the unstoppable 92-year old Stan Lee) resides in a Monroeville care home, suffering from the severe after-effects of a near-fatal 2007 stroke. She is nearly blind, nearly deaf, wheelchair-bound most of the time; but contrary to the accounts of people who know her personally, the persistent myth of her advanced dementia and cognitive impairment endures, just as it did for Gothic superstar Ann Radcliffe two centuries ago. More than a touch of centuries-old sexism pervades the cultural myth that if a bestselling authoress shuts herself up in a tower, she must necessarily be declared mad.

Nevertheless, the public in absentia deems her mentally unfit—if not “proper mad,” then certainly out of touch. She is a figure on whom our Man-of-Feeling sensibilities can take pity, a figure in need of protecting. We never seemed to feel that way about J.D. Salinger, whose reclusiveness and reticence to publish we chalked up to his personal right. The gendered expectations, and the gendered narratives, surrounding these two treasured mid-20th century American recluses should tell us to be sceptical not only of the publishers’ press releases, but of the blogosphere’s backlash as well.

It’s important to recognize that most of our misgivings stem from the fact that its reclusive author, who was nonchalant about the nonsense of literary superstardom at the best of times and is now a good deal older and more infirm, is not actively out flogging the book herself. She is not trumpeting loudly or publicly enough for us to accept secondhand statements that the publication of her work is her choice. What did we expect her to say? Did we expect a woman who no longer sees, hears, or walks, to embark on a grueling press tour to satisfy our doubts of her enthusiasm? Did we expect a woman who “still plod[s] along with books” to sit down in front of some TV cameras and engage in her own marketing campaign? I can’t imagine a work of fiction less in need of marketing. I think it’s fair to criticize the exploitative environment that will no doubt descend on Lee’s novel, whether she’s living or dead, whatever we might do to stop it. Lee is famous, even in old age, for defending herself against exploitation. She settled a suit as recently as 2014 against the Monroe County Heritage Museum for selling cheap souvenirs using her name and book. So the story that Lee is somehow a helpless old woman completely unaware of her own exploitation just doesn’t hold water to me. It smacks of the gender bias she’s faced her whole life, and it also resonates as the perfect story to sell newspapers with, since she has neither obligation nor interest to come forward and correct it.

Finally, if this were not already enough to convince detractors that we can and must have this novel, comes the question I would pose to all those with misgivings about Go Set A Watchman: what should be done with it, if not publication? Should its single, priceless MS be consigned to the dusty archives of a university’s Special Collections library? [I’m taking poetic license; such facilities are now fastidious about keeping dust out.] Should “top men” be assigned to shelving it in the back of that warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark? In more seriousness, should it be burned or otherwise destroyed? If we learn, after the fact, that Michelangelo’s David displeased him and he’d rather it not survive him, dare we strap it in dynamite and blow the thing up like a Bamiyan Buddha? Or should we simply seal the unique manuscript away in a glass coffin, forever unread and unstudied, in the hopes that it wouldn’t inevitably decay, though with that attitude, it wouldn’t fundamentally matter if it did?

If this MS hadn’t been published until after her death, there’d be no hesitation at all to publishing it “in her memory,” nor would anybody particularly care about where the millions of dollars went, or that she who earned them never lived to see a penny. We would be blissfully comfortable publishing Go Set A Watchman once she were dead; we are deeply uncomfortable publishing while she is alive. What does it mean, that posthumous publication would sit so much better with us, than publication during the author’s lifetime, when—exploited or not—she stands a chance of seeing the real fruit of her own labours?

As happens too often with my blog, we come back again to Middle-Earth: the Tolkien estate continues to churn out book after book from JRRT’s old garage-notes; so much has been made posthumously of his private scratchings that his son and literary executor Christopher (now in his 90s himself) has built an entire career on curating the legendary legendarium, from the most polished of poems to the dodgiest of napkin-drafts.

Why is it that last year, when Tolkien’s lost translation of Beowulf came out—or the year before, when we had his Fall of Arthur—or four years before that, when we had his Sigurd and Gudrún, or two years before that, when we had The Children of Húrin—why was no eye batted or objection raised? Tolkien the Elder has been dead for more than 40 years, now (I am counting down the clock: 8 years until Middle-Earth is in the Canadian public domain!!). Tolkien the Younger, meanwhile, is an equally “reclusive” expatriate living in France, emerging once every few years to voice his distaste for Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies. Tolkien the Younger is nearly two years older than Harper Lee; yet no widespread assumptions are made about his mental capacity, and not even reasonable scepticism is paid to his absolute editorial monopoly over his father’s oeuvre.

The world is full, now, of famous geriatrics, artists well into their nineties whose agency over themselves and their works is considered intact. A surprising number of them are Lees, too. Aside from legendary Marvel comic-writer-turned-mascot Stan Lee, through the Tolkien connection we have Sir Christopher Lee, who at 92 continues to juggle the most prolific career in film history while making heavy metal albums—why? Because he can. He also became an SAS commando assassin to fight the Nazis, learned six languages (including Finnish—an heroic deed in itself), inspired his step-cousin Ian Fleming’s secret agent before playing a Bond villain in an ultimate epic irony, became a master swordsman so that he could film more onscreen swordfights than any actor living or dead, and then decided that being a master swordsman just wasn’t epic enough unless it came with a genuine knighthood, and so went out and got one.

Wizards

Why, then, if we still construct Christopher Lee as a geriatric Superman, are so quick to assume Harper Lee’s defenselessness at the hands of her exploiters? Is this a gendered ageism? Ancient Lees Christopher and Stan get a free pass; so would Bruce Lee, too, if he were still alive in his seventy-fifth year. Lees aside, actor Kirk Douglas is now in his NINETY-NINTH year. Like Harper Lee, he was rendered nearly deaf and mute by a crippling stroke several years back. And yet, when his lovely book of poetry, Life Could Be Verse, came out last year, no one cried exploitation. No one assumed him incapable of making his own decisions about how to handle his own house, his own business, his own writing. And Kirk Douglas is not, by most estimations, a writer, in spite of being the record-holder for “world’s oldest celebrity blogger” (How do you know a blogger is about to turn 100 years old? He’s still on MYSPACE!! Wokka wokka…). He’s just a man with a lifetime of wisdom on how to game his own public image. But he is, indeed, a man.

This world of public image is not, ultimately, a business Harper Lee cares about. We don’t really know what she cares about in her private life, but it is not this. We know very little about her—like Ann Radcliffe centuries ago, details are scant; we know what’s only in the public record. From this, we do know Harper Lee to be litigious. She was, after all, the daughter of a lawyer, the sister of a lawyer, and law-school educated herself. For more than five decades, she has been tireless in defense of her own intellectual property—the court records of this are, in fact, some of the only really public information we have of her. In spite of the involvement of her recently passed sister, it seems utterly foolish to believe by default, because she refuses to stand up and perform for us to the contrary, that she is incapable of controlling her work now.

Go Set A Watchman (304 pp.) will be published on or about July 14, 2015 in the United States, by HarperCollins—the same company that handles all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books edited by son Christopher. It will give us one more look at a mature Scout Finch—and, though people have not made much of it, a much older Atticus Finch, who remains one of the greatest characters written in any literature. He is, of course, the aged Atticus as written by a much younger woman, but it will be interesting to see what Harper Lee—then around 30 years old—thought about growing old.

Publishers do not expect Harper Lee to tour in support of the book. Nor should she have to.

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