March 7, 2016

Harper Lee’s will is now as mysterious as her second novel


go set a watchmanLast year’s publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s mega-bestselling “second novel” (do what you will those quotation marks!), was the big publishing story of 2015. MobyLives covered it extensively.

And even before Lee’s death a few weeks ago, it seemed that in 2016, her name would again dominate headlines. In early February, Scott Rudin acquired the stage adaptation rights to To Kill a Mockingbird and hired Aaron Sorkin to write the story. New York theatergoers will get to see a Sorkin-ized Mockingbird in 2017—even though the long-running performances of the play in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama may not be long for this world.

The latest topic of Lee-related chatter? Her will.

On Friday, the New York Times’s Jennifer Crossley Howard reported that a judge in Monroe County had agreed to seal Lee’s will, acceding to a motion filed by Scott E. Adams, a Birmingham lawyer whose firm, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, acted on behalf of Tonja Carter, Lee’s controversial lawyer.

The contents of Lee’s will are a source of considerable interest:

The curiosity surrounding Ms. Lee’s will extended beyond the question of how much her estate—thought to amount to tens of millions of dollars—is actually worth. Also of keen interest is how her assets are to be distributed. Ms. Lee never married and had no children. Her closest living relatives are nieces and nephews . . . In addition to the distribution of assets, the will may reveal where Ms. Lee decided to donate her papers, a literary treasure trove.

But this won’t be the last time we hear about Harper Lee and her legacy this year—or even this spring.

Next month, Henry Holt is reissuing Mockingbird, Charles Shields’s biography of Lee, which was originally scheduled for a July publication. The new hardcover edition features a new subtitle (A Portrait of Harper Lee: From Scout to Go Set a Watchman) and, according to an Alabama Media Group piece about Shields, 50,000 more words, including his discussion of “three competing theories on how the Go Set a Watchman manuscript was found.”

Meanwhile, the historian Wayne Flynt, who gave the eulogy at Lee’s funeral, is writing a book of his own about the writer. According to the Associated Press, it will be “a mix of memoir and biography.” (On Saturday, the writer and critic Michelle Dean (who wrote a terrific 2014 piece about, among other things, Carter’s role in Lee’s life) tweeted about some of the . . . inconsistencies in Flynt’s story.)

And there’s surely much more to come.



Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.