From the NYT:
Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought
By SERGE F. KOVALESKI and ALEXANDRA ALTER JULY 2, 2015
On the eve of the most anticipated publishing event in years — the release of Harper Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman” — there is yet another strange twist to the tale of how the book made its way to publication, a development that further clouds the story of serendipitous discovery that generated both excitement and skepticism in February.
As HarperCollins, the publisher, and Ms. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja B. Carter, have told it, Ms. Carter set out to review an old typescript of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in August and happened upon an entirely different novel — one with the same characters but set 20 years later — attached to it.
“I was so stunned,” Ms. Carter told The New York Times last winter.
Miss Lee is now 89 and pretty gaga, so there are numerous suspicions that this is a mercenary move on the part of the people controlling her literary estate. The book that is going to be published soon is a failed first draft set in the contemporary South using the characters that eventually appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. That unsatisfactory draft was later radically revised by moving the characters 20 years back into their younger years, producing a huge bestseller and perennial English class reading assignment.
This reminds me of the pre-publication excitement in the early 2000s over a supposedly “lost” early novel by science fiction master Robert A. Heinlein from before any of his published works. His protege Jerry Pournelle, however, pointed out that the dean of hard sci-fi had very much enjoyed being paid for his writing, so if Heinlein had chosen not to publish it for the rest of his long life, that suggested it was pretty dire.
And it was.
Similarly, there was much to-do a few years back over a rough draft that Vladimir Nabokov couldn’t finish due to his terminal illness. It eventually was published over his final instructions and … it was pretty bad.
Ralph Ellison worked for years on a follow-up to Invisible Man. It was eventually published after his death, and quickly forgotten.
There are, however, examples of good posthumous works, such as Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion, that were held back for reasons of discretion. But nobody has offered any non-literary reasons for holding back on releasing this draft.
In general, most writers enjoy being read and being paid, so if they refuse to publish a manuscript, they probably have good reasons.
Are there, however, any example of a writer deciding in extreme old age to publish a manuscript that he or she had found unworthy before and it turning out good? Solzhenitsyn’s 200 Years Together is sometimes said to have been about three or four decades old at the time of its publication in Europe at the beginning of this century. But of course it’s never been published in New York, so it’s hard to know what to make of it. That would, however, appear to be more an example of Humean discretion than a change of mind over literary merits.
Of course, the fact that Miss Lee’s attempt at writing about the contemporary South wasn’t as good as the book she eventually published about the South of her childhood reminds us that her childhood next door neighbor was master prose stylist Truman Capote. While To Kill a Mockingbird was at the publishers getting ready for publication, she worked as Capote’s research assistant on In Cold Blood. They appear as characters in each other’s books.
Of course, much like Lee was never able to publish anything after To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote’s writing fizzled after In Cold Blood, so perhaps their literary relationship was more symbiotic than one-sided.