Harper Lee herself put it best when she wrote: “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” Now fifty-five years after the publication of her first (and until now, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee is having a hard time dissuading her concerned fans from just seeing what they’re looking for. After the news of her recently rediscovered, complete manuscript Go Set a Watchman broke, speculation has arisen over the nature of the release. Some are concerned that Lee is being manipulated and exploited by publishers who do not have her best wishes at heart.
The manuscript, though written before To Kill a Mockingbird, was thought to be incomplete until recently, when her friend and lawyer Tonja Carter, rediscovered it and brought it to Lee’s attention. Though she has been pressed to discuss the circumstances of the discovery of the manuscript, Carter refused to give many details to the press, saying that Lee should be the one to give a statement about her work. Lee, now 88 years old, is partially blind and deaf, and lives in a nursing home in Alabama. Suspiciously, her sister, who had been her financial overseer, passed away in November. All of these factors seem to lead to the conclusion that Lee is simply not mentally capable of making her own career choices. So, who is manipulating her and what do they have to gain?
Well, the novel is undoubtedly going to be hugely popular (especially in the period of time immediately after its release) regardless of the scandal, and perhaps because of it. Harper Lee has been a cornerstone in American Literature courses, and her reclusive lifestyle and careful dealings with the media have only added to the intrigue surrounding her professional and personal life.
These responses seem natural enough—and the concerns raised seem valid—but it’s misplaced for the American public to judge the mental competence of an artist. Lee has told friends that she is “extremely hurt and humiliated” by the controversy. Although she has failed to make a formal statement herself—and it is unclear if she will—we need to trust that in her life, she surrounded herself with people who have her best interests at heart. It is not the public’s place to ruthlessly question Lee’s credibility or mental health; rather we should be grateful at the opportunity to once again see the world through her eyes.
Given the recent onslaught of racial tensions throughout the country, perhaps we should be looking to Harper Lee’s novel to once again feel comfortable (or at least, ease the discomfort of) talking about race in the United States. It’s not an easy topic, but maybe Scout, with her grown-up wisdom, can shed some new light on the issue and remind us not only of the progress we have made since the 1960s, when the book takes place, but also of the questions we have yet to answer. The country would benefit from a more open dialogue on race, and literature has always been (if To Kill a Mockingbird is any indication) a way to do this comfortably.
So, in the meantime, let’s take Harper Lee at her word, let’s not assume the worst for one of the most beloved authors in American literary history and, finally, let’s remember that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.