By SERGE F. KOVALESKI and ALEXANDRA ALTER
July 2, 2015
On the eve of the most anticipated publishing event in years — the release of Harper Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman” — there is yet another strange twist to the tale of how the book made its way to publication, a development that further clouds the story of serendipitous discovery that generated both excitement and skepticism in February.
As HarperCollins, the publisher, and Ms. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja B. Carter, have told it, Ms. Carter set out to review an old typescript of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in August and happened upon an entirely different novel — one with the same characters but set 20 years later — attached to it.
But another narrative has emerged that suggests the discovery may have happened years earlier, in October 2011, when Justin Caldwell, a rare books expert from Sotheby’s auction house, flew to Alabama to meet with Ms. Carter and Samuel Pinkus, then Ms. Lee’s literary agent, to appraise a “Mockingbird” manuscript for insurance and other purposes.
Ms. Lee's novel "Go Set a Watchman" was initially said to have been found in August.
The discrepancy between the two accounts raises questions about whether the book was lost and accidentally recovered, and about why Ms. Lee would not have sought to publish it earlier.
The meeting, arranged by Mr. Pinkus, took place in Monroeville, Ms. Lee’s hometown, at a bank near the town square where some of Ms. Lee’s writings were kept in a safe-deposit box, along with a typewriter that Ms. Lee had worked on.
Mr. Caldwell looked at two documents presented to him in a Lord & Taylor box, according to a person who was briefed on his account. The “Mockingbird” item turned out to be a publisher’s proof, not a particularly valuable item. The other was a typescript of a story that, like “Mockingbird,” was set in the fictional town of Maycomb and inhabited by the same people. But Mr. Caldwell noticed that the characters were older, and the action set many years later, the person said. After reading about 20 pages and comparing passages to a published copy of “Mockingbird” for nearly an hour, Mr. Caldwell is said to have realized the differences and told the others in the room that it seemed to be an early version of the novel.
Ms. Carter acknowledged in a statement last week that she had accompanied Mr. Pinkus and Mr. Caldwell to the bank at the request of Alice Lee, the author’s sister. But she said that she was sent from the room to run an errand before any review of the materials occurred. She denied ever learning that a different manuscript had been found that day and would not elaborate on whether she had later asked what had happened.
Ms. Lee in 2007. She has not granted a formal interview since the mid-1960s.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
“If Sam discovered the ‘Go Set a Watchman’ manuscript at that time, he told neither me nor Miss Alice nor Nelle,” Ms. Carter said in the statement, using the name that family and friends call Ms. Lee.
Both Mr. Pinkus and Sotheby’s, however, say Ms. Carter was there during Mr. Caldwell’s 2011 review.
Mr. Pinkus was later fired by Ms. Carter and sued in 2013 by Harper Lee, who accused him of duping her into transferring the copyright for “Mockingbird” to him. That lawsuit was settled out of court.
Tonja B. Carter
Sotheby’s confirmed the meeting in a statement: “On October 12, 2011, Sotheby’s specialist Justin Caldwell traveled to Monroeville, Alabama to look at a number of items at the request of Harper Lee’s literary agent, Samuel Pinkus. Present at the meeting, which took place in the viewing room of a bank below the law offices of Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter, L.L.C. were Tonja Carter and Samuel Pinkus.”
The auction house said it could not discuss the meeting in detail because it treats appraisals as confidential matters.
A HarperCollins spokeswoman said that, while Ms. Carter had not previously mentioned the 2011 visit by Sotheby’s, it believes her account of stumbling onto the manuscript last year.
Did Mr. Caldwell discover “Watchman,” or perhaps a version of “Watchman,” in his review? His depiction of the manuscript as an early version of “Mockingbird,” in which the characters were older, closely matches HarperCollins’s description of the book. But Ms. Carter and the publisher have said the lost manuscript had been affixed to an original manuscript of “Mockingbird,” not a publisher’s proof of the kind Mr. Caldwell is said to have found.
The differences in the accounts of when and how the manuscript was discovered could add a wrinkle to the highly anticipated release of “Watchman.” News of the publication delighted fans eager to read another novel by Ms. Lee. But it also represented an abrupt turnaround for an author who had said she did not intend to publish another work and then, late in life, agreed to venture out with a book that had initially been dismissed as an ambitious but disjointed first draft.
It is unclear why, if the manuscript was found in 2011, Ms. Carter might have delayed bringing it to publication. Some have questioned whether Alice Lee, the older sister who served as the author’s caretaker and counsel for decades, would have approved of the decision to publish. The publisher has not said whether Alice, infirm in the fall of 2014, was consulted on that decision. By the time the “Watchman” release was announced, in February, she had been dead for three months.
Harper, a HarperCollins imprint, will release “Watchman” on July 14, with a first printing of two million copies. The novel is the most preordered book in the company’s history.
Ms. Carter has emerged as a central figure in the continuing debate over the release of the
book. She serves as Ms. Lee’s chief liaison to the publisher and has become the main conduit for remarks from Ms. Lee, who has not granted a formal interview since the mid-1960s.
When the publishing news was announced, Ms. Carter released a statement on Ms. Lee’s behalf that said, in part, “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.”
This year, Alabama investigators looked into at least one anonymous complaint that Ms. Lee, who is 89, infirm, largely deaf and visually impaired, may have been manipulated into publishing “Watchman.” After interviewing Ms. Lee at the assisted living facility where she lives, investigators determined that she had consented to publishing the book. HarperCollins executives who have visited Ms. Lee also say she is enthusiastic about publishing it.
Started in the mid-1950s, when Ms. Lee was living in New York and traveling home to care for her ailing father, this first try at a novel unfolds in the Alabama of that era, as Scout, the young heroine of “Mockingbird,” returns home to visit her father and grapples with the racial turmoil and politics of the time.
Much of the book’s early history is captured in the fastidious papers of her original agents, Annie Laurie Williams and Maurice Crain, which are archived at Columbia University. These papers show that Ms. Lee gave her agents the first 49 pages of “Watchman” in January 1957. In February, she handed in a complete draft. It was submitted to publishers that summer. In October, J. B. Lippincott and Company bought it for $1,000, with an option to publish a second book.
But Ms. Lee’s editor told her to rewrite the story and set it 20 years earlier, during Scout’s childhood. The revisions took two years.
The notecard system Ms. Williams used to track individual works bolsters the view that, at the time, Ms. Williams viewed “Watchman” as a first draft. She did not, for example, create two cards for two books, just one that tracks the evolution of “Watchman” into “Mockingbird.” At the top of the card, the original title is crossed out to make room for the new one.
In 1959, when the rewritten novel passed muster, Ms. Lee expressed her relief in a letter to Ms. Williams. “I was plain afraid for you to read it and go through the bitter disappointment of two years wasted effort a’borning a writer,” she wrote.
The next year, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published and became an instant best seller.
The correspondence between Ms. Lee and her agents archived at Columbia shows that as pressure built to write a second book, the publisher, Ms. Lee and her agents did not treat “Watchman” as a possible candidate.
In 1965, when there was still no second book, Ms. Williams wrote to Alice Lee and expressed concern that her sister had been rattled by the difficulty of matching her original masterpiece.
“It doesn’t have to be written according her publisher’s schedule and I think she should take her time,” she wrote. “It is difficult, as you know, to follow ‘Mockingbird’ as this book was such an all-around success that measuring up to that book is almost impossible.”
But Andrew Nurnberg, Ms. Lee’s current literary agent, told The Guardian in February that he had seen letters indicating that Lippincott had planned to build on the success of “Mockingbird” by later publishing “Watchman” as part of a trilogy. Ms. Lee’s current publisher has said that “Watchman” is every bit as compelling as her beloved first novel, and that it has a distinct plot and some new characters, in addition to the familiar figures of Scout and Atticus.
Charles J. Shields, an author who came across mentions of “Watchman” in the archival letters while researching his biography “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” said he had not seen evidence that it was ever considered as a follow-up to “Mockingbird.”
“They saw ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ and they didn’t consider it a contender,” he said. “It’s the prototype for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”
Ms. Lee worked assiduously on other books, including a true-crime story about a murderous preacher and another novel. But she never published another book.
The unpublished manuscript for “Watchman” was eventually secured at the bank in Monroeville. That is apparently what Mr. Caldwell, the Sotheby’s specialist, saw in 2011. Sotheby’s was never hired to do a formal appraisal.
It is unclear to what extent Ms. Lee or her sister had involvement in any conversations about the Sotheby appraiser’s analysis, beyond Alice directing Ms. Carter to escort the men to the bank. Ms. Carter declined to answer additional questions.
After the announcement, Ms. Carter declined most interviews and provided a limited account of her discovery. She described the location where the manuscript had been held as a “secure place,” but denied it had been the safe-deposit box. She said she had made the discovery in August, though the publisher originally said it had been found in the fall. She acknowledged, in an exchange of emails with The New York Times, that she had seen the manuscript before August 2014, but said that she, “like everyone else did not know what it was.”
She briefly described the encounter in which, she said, Harper Lee had set her straight on the manuscript’s origins.
“It was the parent of ‘Mockingbird,’ ” she quoted Ms. Lee as telling her.
At the time of the announcement, Jonathan Burnham, an executive with HarperCollins, gave The Atlantic his own account of Ms. Carter’s discovery. She had been checking on “the state of being on the original, very valuable manuscript of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ ” when she stumbled upon the manuscript, he said.
“This was,” he continued, “the first time the manuscript had been found since heaven-knows-when.”
Jennifer Crossley Howard contributed reporting from Decatur, Ala. and Susan Beachy contributed research.