How Will Harper Lee Be Remembered?

Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House, November 5, 2007, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Writers whose reputation outlives them are lucky twice over: They gain a certain kind of immortality (maybe even a presentiment of it), and they get to rest eternally and leave the vagaries of fame and fortune to their work and its executors. Would Nabokov have wanted The Original of Laura published? How would Theodore Geisel feel about a jerry-rigged What Pet Should I Get? Did Kafka really want all his manuscripts burned? We can theorize about the impact on their reputations or the mixed motives of their descendants, but we can’t know and, presumably, they no longer care.

Nelle Harper Lee died today at age 89, after a long and in some ways tumultuous decline — an argument over her legacy that, unfortunately, preceded her death. Whatever you believe about her state of mind in the last several years of her life, it’s clear that something had radically changed under the care of Tonja Carter, the partner in the Lee family law firm who succeeded Alice Lee, Nelle’s beloved sister, part-time roommate, and longtime protector, who died in 2014 at the age of 103. Carter restricted access to an ailing Nelle, who’d had a severe stroke in 2007, and Lee’s “brand” was increasingly consolidated and monetized in clear anticipation of her passing.

“In the absence of her being willing to talk, the only versions we’ll ever have are other people’s versions.” That’s what Lee’s friend, Auburn professor Wayne Flynt, told me two years ago for a piece that ran only partway through this tumultuous final chapter. A defender of Tonja Carter, he subscribed to the kinder of two competing narratives that divided friends, family, and neighbors in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama — the model for To Kill a Mockingbird’s segregation-era Maycomb and the beneficiary of the tourism engendered by her incredible fame.

Carter has said almost as little as the famously reclusive Nelle, even as she moved aggressively on her client’s behalf. She reacquired Lee’s copyright, which had been wrangled from the author by a literary agent in the aftermath of her stroke (an instance in which Carter could and should have acted sooner). She filed to trademark the title of To Kill a Mockingbird, then sued the Monroeville museum gift shop in the courthouse that inspired a climactic scene, notwithstanding a decades-long truce between author and town. She threatened to sue Marja Mills, whose Mockingbird Next Door featured substantial quotes from Lee for the first time in decades (over the objections of Alice Lee, who insisted the quasi-biography was authorized).

Then Carter did something radically unexpected, based on everything we knew about her client. She dug up an inferior early draft of Mockingbird (before editor Tay Hohoff advised her to flesh out the flashbacks) and, shortly after Alice died, made a deal with HarperCollins to print 2 million copies of it, with minimal editing. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch, a lawyer based on Lee’s own father, is no longer the hero he was in Mockingbird, defending a wrongly accused black man; now, 20 years later, he’s an embittered segregationist codger attending glorified Klan meetings. In the new official narrative of Harper Lee’s career, Atticus had morphed, in a “second novel,” from a beacon of moral clarity to a muddled racist, while his daughter, Scout, went from a wide-eyed, right-thinking tomboy to a conflicted defender of “states’ rights.”

Of course the real story went the other way: Mockingbird is the proper novel, for better and worse. Watchman is very instructive on Lee’s evolution and her conflicted identity as she and her family confronted profound societal change. It’s a work of great scholarly but little aesthetic value — and none of Mockingbird’s enduring power to inspire. In Carter’s telling, Lee had cast aside a half-century of insecurity and shyness to pass off a politically dubious and unpolished sketch as the second masterpiece the world had so long hankered for. With or without Lee’s consent (in her final years she was mostly deaf and blind, given to forgetfulness and emotional extremes), Carter betrayed the younger Lee, if not the older one.

There is the other narrative, of course, the one backed up by an Alabama state agency that investigated elder-abuse charges and found nothing amiss. Lee has simply soured on the hometown that profited so handsomely from her book; she felt bombarded by well-wishers bringing unwanted soup; she defied her own sister to categorically deny on-the-record talks with Marja Mills; she preferred the controversy of multiple lawsuits to the thin but durable membrane of privacy she’d maintained for decades; and she decided to publish another book after all — not a new one but a draft of her one universally beloved novel. And finally, just a little over a week before her death, she assented to a deal to sell To Kill a Mockingbird’s Broadway theatrical rights to Scott Rudin.

Maybe I’m stacking the deck. People do change their minds, profoundly, especially when their friends die away, especially if those friends include a sister who had been a firewall against the world. They get cantankerous; they rethink life as it comes to a close. And either way, we’ve undeniably learned things from Watchman that we didn’t know, rethought our pieties about Atticus Finch and his creator in a time after Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. Thanks to Carter, Lee’s estate is certainly in better order than it was when a random agent owned her copyright. And really, who isn’t at least mildly curious to see what Aaron Sorkin does with an onstage Mockingbird, after decades of amateur productions?

When it comes to arguments over posthumous publication and adaptation, I’d almost always err on the side of release. Any reputation worth preserving would surely survive the blows of greedy publishers and sloppy directors. It was only after Raymond Carver’s death that we really got to see what he sounded like without the brutal intervention of editor Gordon Lish. Whatever that republication did to his legacy, we had a right to see it.

But just as we shouldn’t canonize living writers, we are bound to honor their wishes. We’ll probably know more about what Harper Lee’s final years looked like soon enough; death loosens tongues and obligations, and rightfully so. Go Set a Watchman and the other late-life controversies at least got us all talking about Harper Lee again. We’re more interested in To Kill a Mockingbird than ever, and we know a lot more about how it came to be and what made its author run. It’s just a shame it had to happen while she was alive.