Is the publication of Harper Lee’s new novel elder abuse?

People who haven’t read a book since middle school and people who read books all the time were united in joy yesterday at the news of a new Harper Lee novel to be released this summer. According to publisher HarperCollins, the manuscript of the novel, Go Set a Watchman, was discovered by Lee’s lawyer last fall, and the 88-year old author is enthusiastic about the chance to publish her early work.

But the timing and circumstances of the announcement–Lee’s sister and lifelong advocate Alice just died–have raised eyebrows and suspicions that all may not be as it should in Monroeville, Alabama.

Last summer, Michelle Dean reported on the controversy surrounding a new book about Lee and her sister. The author of The Mockingbird Next Door claimed that Lee had cooperated with the book, but various statements released under Lee’s name disavowed her participation in the project. Statements from Alice, who also served as her attorney until 2011, contradicted Lee. The ensuing mess raised questions about whether Lee’s new attorney, Tonja Carter, was actually acting in the best interest of the author, who had suffered a stroke.

“When an elderly person has to hand off control of her affairs like this, things can get messy,” Dean writes.

Another dispute, involving the assignment of Lee’s copyright on To Kill A Mockingbird to an agent, raised the possibility that Lee’s medical condition meant she might sign documents without being aware of their meaning.

An interview with Lee’s “editor” Hugh Van Dusen (he bears the title but has never actually edited Lee’s writing) in Vulture raises more questions about the new novel’s publication than it answers. Van Dusen hadn’t spoken to Lee about the publication, so he ends up quoting the press release and referencing Lee’s lawyer, Carter, as the conduit to Lee. It’s apparent from the interview that Van Dusen has no first hand knowledge of Lee’s wishes. Does anyone at HarperCollins?

Go Set a Watchman is going to be highly lucrative for everyone involved. It’s worrisome to think that the book–which Lee chose not to publish for most of her adult life–is now to be published without her consent. Taking advantage of an elderly woman–I think Atticus would compare that to killing a mockingbird.

[Image: ABC News]