It is unsurprising that, during debates of whether To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee intended her about-to-be-published novel, Go Set a Watchman, to be published or not, the ghost of Truman Capote should raise his head.
There have always been rumors that Capote, a childhood neighbor of Lee’s, actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. But those close to Lee scoff.
For Lee’s place as America’s First Lady of letters has been soured by persistent rumours that it was Capote and not her who was largely responsible for the original story about small-town Southern life in the Fifties and a heroic lawyer who tries to save a black man from a terrible injustice. Capote went on to have a long and glittering literary career, but Lee retreated into reclusive obscurity, stating she had said all she needed to say in print.
For sceptics, it has always defied credibility that an unknown writer could produce a single, perfect novel and then pack away her typewriter for good and completely disappear from public life.
Surely she would want to write more. Could her half-century of silence — not to mention her drastic falling out with Capote — have a more extraordinary explanation? The circumstances surrounding the sudden appearance of this new book, Go Set a Watchman, similarly almost defy belief.
Later, Lee and Capote’s estrangement added to the rumors:
While he was boasting of an affair with Errol Flynn and being pals with Greta Garbo, Lee retreated behind a small circle of trusted friends and maintained a wall of public silence.
When Lee helped to promote the acclaimed 1962 film version of her book starring Gregory Peck, Capote sneered: ‘I think it very undignified for any serious artist to allow themselves to be exploited in this fashion.’
Lee told a neighbour: ‘Truman was a psychopath, honey.’
Her older sister, Alice, was more precise, claiming: ‘Truman became very jealous because Nellie Harper got a Pulitzer [Prize, for literary achievement] and he did not.’
The announcement of the summer 2015 publication of Lee’s second novel have fanned the rumor flames.
Some now say that what has been called the ‘Loch Ness monster of the literary world’ — the dispute over this revered book’s authorship — may finally be solved by this second Harper Lee novel. But will it?
If Go Set a Watchman — being published unedited — is far inferior, does that really prove she must have had help with her later masterpiece?
And if it turns out to be every bit as brilliant, couldn’t a counter argument simply run that Capote might have written both books? No doubt we will learn more later this year.
Perhaps the best approach is simply to be grateful that a story of such elegance and power as To Kill a Mockingbird was given to us at all.
The Daily Mail story quoted above is here.