All that, human nature and media systems being what they are, only served to stoke the curiosity that swirled around a Second Novel From Harper Lee. As did Lee’s own reluctance to situate herself within fame's familiar infrastructures. As The New York Times summed it up: “Unmanageable success made her determined to vanish.” Lee's repeated response to the interview requests of Charles Shields, who published an (unauthorized) biography of her in 2006, was "not just no, but hell no." Lee once told Oprah Winfrey, over a (private) lunch, why she’d never appear on her show: While people tended to compare her to Scout, she explained, “I’m really Boo.” Lee did not, in the manner of some other literary “recluses,” fully withdraw from public view—she occasionally accepts awards and honorary degrees and the like—but she has insisted that her participation in her own publicity be mostly of a silent nature. In 2007, at a ceremony inducting four new members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Lee declined a request to address the audience, explaining, “Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool.”
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Given all that, you have to wonder: Why end the silence? And why do it now?
Perhaps it really was as simple as a manuscript lost and recovered, serendipitously for all involved. Perhaps all those doubts Lee had previously expressed about the publication of a second novel were merely the results of the natural, but not invincible, anxiety that comes with that infamously fraught project. Perhaps Lee regretted having signed over her copyright of Mockingbird, and wanted something else she could call, in the fullest sense, truly hers. Perhaps Lee, approaching her 90s, figured that age will afford her what her attempts at a sheltered life could not: the easy relief of silence.
Perhaps she decided that she has not, after all, said all she has to say.
Or perhaps, having witnessed the rise of what Boris Kachka calls the “Mockingbird industrial complex” from afar, the writer wanted to bring a renewed kind of intimacy to her work. "I think it very undignified for any serious artist to allow themselves to be exploited in this fashion," Truman Capote, in full frenemy mode, once sniffed of Lee’s work to promote the film version of her novel. Lee's silence, after the initial heat of her fame dissipated, might indicate that she agrees.
Or perhaps Lee, alive but ill, is being treated the way so many deceased authors are: as ideas rather than people, as brands and businesses rather than messy collections of doubts and desires.
We won’t know. We can’t know. All we will have, in the end, is a book, a thing that will raise as many questions as it answers. And, for better or for worse, that is probably just how Harper Lee—Nelle to the small collection of people who really know her—would prefer things.
* This post originally misstated the U.S. publisher of Harper Lee's new book, Go Set a Watchman. It is HarperCollins, not Penguin Random House, which will publish the books in the U.K. and Commonwealth. We regret the error.