Philip Hensher

A bad novel on the way to a good one

Harper Lee’s publishers are much to blame for resurrecting this piece of confused juvenilia. It should have remained where it belongs — in the bottom drawer

This is an interesting document, and a pretty bad novel. I don’t know why anyone thought it would be otherwise. In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. It was an important statement, as well as a very good novel. Just as it took the southerner Lyndon B. Johnson to make the most significant civil rights concessions, so literary culture needed a novel written by a woman from the south saying all the right things about race in the firmest way possible. The book was compelling, and immediately made its way into classrooms worldwide, where it has stayed.

Subsequently, Harper Lee made it very clear that she would not be publishing another novel — neither writing one, nor producing one written earlier. She has not been a recluse, but she has not wanted to venture into print again. I think the experience of fame must have destroyed the sort of writer Lee really is — the quietly observing novelist of small-town life. You can’t remain an anonymous, alert observer of unselfconscious existences if everyone knows what you’re up to with your little notebook.

Her representatives have told us the way in which this novel — a first attempt at the world of To Kill a Mockingbird — has come to be published. In 2011, experts from Sotheby’s identified a complete novel, written in the 1950s, in Lee’s papers. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, had unfortunately just left the room to run some errands when this announcement was made. No one subsequently thought to tell her of this discovery. Three years later, Carter herself was going through the papers when she found the same typescript. When she announced it, nobody observed that it had already been discovered. Lee herself had apparently not been told in 2011, and expressed herself delighted with the discovery, and happy to go ahead with publication.

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