Harper Lee's will has done little to quell rumors and bring clarity to the author's last years
Harper Lee's last few years were marred by controversy, not because of her, but because of the events happening around her. Her will, recently unsealed, has added little clarity.
Harper Lee, best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird' was a fiercely private person. She regularly shunned interviews, made minimal public appearances, did not care for the numerous honors bestowed upon her, and was critical of the popularity of her novel being used as a bargaining chip in making her once peaceful town of Monroeville into a tourist hotspot.
Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature for 'To Kill a Mockingbird', and by all means, she was well-settled and well-to-do.
Since its publication in 1960, the book has gone to sell over 40 million copies worldwide, and to this day, still continues to sell over a million copies a year. According to court documents obtained by the New York Times, this generates a revenue of about $2 million in royalties for Lee, a tidy sum for someone who still followed a frugal lifestyle, despite all her wealth.
Before the acclaimed author died in February 2016, she had signed a will that would see a majority of her assets, including her coveted literary papers and possessions, go into the Mockingbird Trust, a private trust she had set up in 2011.
Because of the nature of such an entity - trust documents are private and notoriously set up by people who either have something to hide or are supremely private - the situation only became murkier.
Her longtime lawyer, Tonja B. Carter, had also successfully petitioned the probate court in Monroe County to seal Lee's will, citing privacy reasons.
The documents also stated that making the will public could lead to the "potential harassment" of the individuals identified in it. But a New York Times lawsuit had sought to review the document, arguing that wills filed in a probate court would fall under public records and Lee's privacy concerns no different to that of any normal citizen.
They won the lawsuit and the will was unsealed this past week.
The will revealed little, other than that her closest living relatives were a niece and three nephews, who are expected to be the recipients of a portion of her vast estate through the trust.
Unsurprisingly, it also gave Carter unheralded power to execute the contents of the will as she saw fit; she is also one of the two trustees of the private trust, drawing further scrutiny into the vast influence she held over the author.
The suspicion that something may have been awry rose because Lee had suffered a stroke in 2007, and had severe vision and hearing problems since. She had also been moved to an assisted living facility and was said to be in poor physical condition as well. Conspiracy theories have since been abounding on how Lee may have been taken advantage of, and numerous accounts from different sources have done little to clear the doubts.
When she decided to publish a second novel, 'Go Set a Watchman', 55 years after consistently maintaining that she would never write another book, it raised questions of whether she had somehow been coerced into signing away her intellectual property - which she always took painstaking care to look after - in her vulnerable old age.
In a 2013 copyright dispute that went to court, her lawyers claimed that she had been taken advantage of and coerced into signing away her copyright because she was "an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see."
Promoted as a "newly discovered" novel at the time of its publication, it was anything but, at least according to numerous experts. Many felt that the book was actually a rough draft of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' that had been discarded by Lee, a theory supported by the fact that the same passages exist in both the books, in many cases, word for word. People were also aggrieved because they felt it tainted Lee's legacy as the book felt unfinished, incomplete.
There was also the issue that the protagonist of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' Atticus Finch, was portrayed in a vastly different manner in her latest novel. Once the crusading, swashbuckling lawyer who strove to set an example to his two kids and fought racial inequality vehemently, 'Go Set A Watchman' sees Finch affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies. Something fans struggled to come to grips with.
However, amidst all the chaos, the spotlight particularly fell on Carter, who was entitled to compensation herself for her work as Lee's lawyer. Carter claimed to have discovered the manuscript for 'Go Set a Watchman' in 2014 in Lee's safe-deposit box and that after contacting Lee and reading the manuscript, she passed it on to Lee's agent, Andrew Nurnberg, who in turn had set the wheels in motion to see it in print.
Commercially, the novel was very successful and was the best-selling book of 2015 in the United States, selling more than 1.6 million copies; probably vindicating both Carter and Nurnberg in the process.
But its publication firmly divided her hometown into two factions: the first consisting of her longtime friends and acquaintances who were not convinced that Lee had approved of the publication, and the second consisting of Carter, her agent, and her publisher. While an investigation by the State of Alabama through its Human Resources Department found that the claims of elder abuse and coercion were unfounded, and according to Lee's lawyer, she was "happy as hell with the publication."
Members of the former faction were not so convinced. Marja Mills, the author of 'The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee' and a friend and former neighbor, wrote a piece in the Washington Times that painted a rather different picture.
Quoting Lee's sister Alice, whom she described as being Lee's "gatekeeper, advisor, and protector" for most of Lee's adult life, she wrote: "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence."
Mills also noted that 'Go Set a Watchman' was announced just two and a half months after Alice's death and that since then, all correspondence to and from Lee went through her new attorney.
She described Lee as "in a wheelchair in an assisted living center, nearly deaf and blind, with a uniformed guard posted at the door" and her visitors "restricted to those on the approved list."
And while Carter said she came across the manuscript in 2014, other accounts claimed that she had originally discovered the manuscript in 2011 during an appraisal by a Sotheby's books expert and that she knew full well that it was the same manuscript which had been submitted to Tay Hohoff - the editor who helped her polish the manuscript into 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in the 1950s - and that Carter had been sitting on the discovery, waiting for the moment when she, and not Alice, would be in charge of Lee's affairs.
In her defense, Carter said that the Sotheby's appraiser had come to inspect what he thought was a 'To Kill a Mockingbird' script and that she had not realized a different manuscript had been reviewed.
While many will question's Carter's wide-ranging control over Lee's vast literary treasures and estate, others are comfortable knowing that it lays at the hands of someone who has always been very protective of Lee and that she will do what she feels was in her client's best wishes. She helps run Mockingbird Company, a non-profit set up shortly before the author's death, and which puts on a dramatization of the novel in Monroeville each year.
Carter also led a coalition of local businesses in Monroeville in the creation of the Harper Lee trail, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of fans to the town and help boost its economy. There are plans to refurbish the 1909 bank building where her father - who was the model for Atticus Finch - kept his law office, and to also build the replicas of three houses that feature in the novel.
Representing a commercialization of her intellectual property, critic Sarah Churchwell rightly questions the validity and motive behind some of these decisions and that it represented something "far more pernicious than the commercialization of Lee's legacy."
She told the Guardian: "The so-called ‘alt-right’ is white nationalism repackaged as retro-chic and its discourse constantly invokes nostalgia for a golden age in the Confederate South when racism when reigned supreme. The leaders of this project will need to be very careful that they don’t end up just creating a Disneyland for racists."
She added: "To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel that responds, angrily, to America’s history of violence against its own citizens. Let’s hope the leaders of Monroeville bear in mind that there is nothing entertaining about that."
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