Harper Lee’s Watchman – a novel hiding in plain sight

Harper Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, the woman at the centre of the mysteries surrounding Go Set a Watchman’s publication this week, has broken her silence. In a lengthy piece in the Wall Street Journal, she intimates that there may be a third novel by Lee residing in a safe-deposit box in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama.

Carter discovered the Go Set a Watchman manuscript in the autumn of 2014, according to the initial announcement about the novel’s publication. It was, said Lee’s publishers, “considered to have been lost until … Carter discovered it in a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird”.

Carter has said little to clarify matters until this point but, in a 1500-word piece published on Monday by the Wall Street Journal, which shares a parent company with Lee’s American publisher HarperCollins, she laid out in detail for the first time how she discovered the manuscript, describing herself as an “otherwise unknown” person placed by chance at the centre of public attention.

Much, she writes, has been said since February about “how [Watchman] was found, who found it, who knew of its existence, and when it was first found”, and “as Nelle’s [Lee] estate trustee, lawyer and friend, I would like to tell the full story, fill in any blanks that may be in people’s minds, and provide a historical context for those interested in how this book went from lost to being found”.

She relates her version of the 2011 meeting involving Lee’s former literary agent Sam Pinkus and Sotheby’s appraiser Justin Caldwell to examine the novelist’s assets.

“Nelle’s safe-deposit box contained several items, including an old cardboard box from Lord & Taylor,” Carter writes. The box also contained a partially opened envelope from Lippincott postmarked January 1961.

An unknown book
She said that the Lord & Taylor box contained “several hundred pages of typed original manuscript”, which appeared to be a later chapter in Mockingbird; she was asked to find a copy of Mockingbird to compare with the manuscript and, after handing one to the two men, left the meeting.

Later follow-up from both Caldwell and Pinkus did not mention the existence of a second, unknown book, she writes, and the New York Times’s version of events describes them “in ways very different from how I remember them and in ways not reflecting the emails sent to me by Mr Pinkus and Mr Caldwell”.

Carter admits that she did see a reference in the pages of manuscript she read to a character named Hank – who is shown in the first chapter of Watchman to be a childhood friend of Jean Louise Finch’s brother Jem, whom she is “almost” in love with.

Carter, however, assumed that Hank was a character from an early draft of Mockingbird. According to her account in the Wall Street Journal, it wasn’t until summer 2014 that she heard that Lee had actually written another novel. Looking again at the pages in the safe-deposit box, she found Go Set a Watchman.

Things hiding in plain sight
“I immediately went to Nelle,” she writes. “I said, ‘Nelle, when I was in the safe-deposit box, I found something’. She said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘It’s a manuscript of a novel called Go Set the Watchman.’ She said, ‘It’s Go Set a Watchman.’ I asked, ‘Is it finished?’ Nelle replied, ‘I guess it’s finished, it’s the parent of Mockingbird.’ ” Carter adds that she asked for, and received, permission to read it.

Carter reveals at the end of her piece she returned last week to the safe-deposit box to see if there were “other things hiding in plain sight”.

“What we found was extraordinary and surprised even me,” she writes. “Remember the partially opened mailer from Lippincott that the publisher had sent to Alice Lee in 1961? Well, my colleague very carefully removed its contents, which were about 300 pages of typed manuscript. It was clear to us that what was in the package had not been removed since it was first mailed.”

The pages, she said, appear to be the original manuscript of Mockingbird. And Watchman itself, she writes, was sitting “underneath a stack of a significant number of pages of another typed text”.

“Was it an earlier draft of Watchman, or of Mockingbird, or even, as early correspondence indicates it might be, a third book bridging the two? I don’t know,” said Carter, adding that “experts, at Nelle’s direction” are now going to be invited to “examine and authenticate” all the safe-deposit box’s documents. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Alison Flood
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