PBS just released a web exclusive with footage from a June 30 meeting between Harper Lee, her lawyer, agent, and a gaggle of publishing executives. The entourage traveled to Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, Alabama, to present her with a fresh hardcover copy of Go Set a Watchman. And they would all like you to know how fantastic Lee is doing. She’s just aces, thank you very much.
Emmy award winner Mary McDonagh Murphy filmed and curated this thirteen minute special, compiling interviews and documentation of the meeting. As a longtime devotee of Lee’s work, Murphy seems an obvious choice for the job. In 2010 HarperCollins published her book, Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird; two years later she released the documentary Harper Lee: Hey Boo.
But this video’s prevailing tone is one of eerie overeagerness. We hear Lee’s voice just a few times; to be fair, she is frail, hard of hearing, and her vision is failing. But when her lawyer, Tonja B. Carter, describes Lee as “like a child” and “almost giddy” over the imminent publication of Go Set a Watchman, her words contrast uneasily with Lee’s delicate and demure responses. She seems satisfied enough, sure: when presented with one of the first copies of her book, she responds, matter-of-factly, “Wonderful.” And when Murphy asks if she ever expected the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird’s predecessor, she returns, “Of course I did. Don’t be silly.”
All the same, we can’t know from these heavily edited snippets precisely what Lee thinks of all this, and, of course, it’s none of our business. However, Carter is only too eager to speak for her client. With regard to the controversy over whether Lee wanted the book to be published, she emphasizes that Lee always makes her own decisions - but “she does take suggestions.” And the narrative Carter offers about the book’s discovery remains cagey and suspiciously vague.
Yet, we have no cause for worry! According to each and every interviewee, Lee is doing swell and retains her “signature sass.” Her friend, Alabama historian Wayne Flint mentions that their letters are “filled with allusions,” so we can rest easy knowing that Lee would ace an AP Literature exam. Oh, and did I mention her stellar recollection of the dialogue in King Lear?
Lee does seem sharp, and that’s no surprise. Hopefully she is as thrilled with the book’s publication as Carter claims she is. But the undercurrent of insecurity in this video renders the whole affair just as suspect as it has been from the beginning.
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