Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Dan Spinelli
Dan Spinelli is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and Political Science.
Months before the much-anticipated July 2015 release of Go Set a Watchman, the misbegotten early draft of Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, publisher HarperCollins released a statement from the author, which stated, “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to ‘Watchman.’”  Lee’s well-known repudiation of the possibility of publishing any follow-up novels to To Kill a Mockingbird makes her words, if not completely surprising, seem a bit forced. Go Set a Watchman would, as the New York Times wrote after the book’s publication, make “an abrupt turnaround for an author who had said she did not intend to publish another work and then, late in life, agreed to venture out with a book that had initially been dismissed as an ambitious but disjointed first draft.”  Could it be that her lawyer duped the literary stalwart in her old age?
Lee had originally written Watchman, which features beloved characters like Scout and Atticus Finch and is set decades after the storyline of Mockingbird, as an early draft of Mockingbird in 1957. The original manuscript caught the eye of Therese von Hohoff Torrey, an agent at the now-defunct publishing company, J.B. Lippincott.  Torrey urged Lee to revise the novel, ultimately giving rise to the seminal 1960 tale of racism in a small Southern town. Nothing in the years since Mockingbird’s runaway success suggested that Lee wanted to revisit the book’s earlier iteration. It doesn’t take more than a shade of skepticism to wonder… why publish Watchman now, when, according to her sister, Lee “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,”? 
The cynic may give the easy answer: money. With over 1.1 million copies sold in less than a week, Lee’s once-rough draft became the fastest-selling novel in history.  While it is easy to blame scurrilous publishers and a greedy lawyer for publishing Lee’s work, the problem may be our human desire for consumption combined with a need for closure. In American literary and cinematic culture, the Ironmen are right: “what is dead may never die.” We eat up sequels, prequels, spinoffs, trading cards, video games…there can be no “final” Star Wars or James Bond movie. The smell of big money brings the hulking beast of a media franchise back from the dead. Lee might have been fine with just one published novel to her name, but all the rest – her fans, publisher, agent, and literati at large – surely were not.
No literary celebrities are safe from excavations of their unfinished or thrown-away work. Ever since Stephen King famously retrieved his first novel, Carrie, from the trashcan, the garbage of novelists has become the reading public’s treasure. The controversy of the passage of literary estates a relatively straightforward matter by law, takes on an ethical, rather than legal, tone that affects many of literature’s greatest stars. David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published three years after his death on September 12th, 2008. From index cards, an array of notes, and the manuscript worked on by Wallace for ten years, Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch “brilliantly pieced together” a novel that would later receive the honor of being a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist. 
But would Wallace really have wanted someone else to finish his work? His widow and editor may have put their seals of approval on it, but would have Wallace approved of it? Some authors, like Game of Thrones czar George R.R. Martin, have fiercely opposed anyone else finishing their books if they are to pass away prior to the completion of the work.  Novels, unlike the serialized behemoths that are Star Wars and Indiana Jones, are the intellectual property of usually an intensely proprietary creator. When the literary estates of accomplished deceased authors are passed onto family members or editors, is it really their decision to publish or complete an unfinished novel? Or, in Lee’s case, how able is an author to authorize the publication of a novel she never saw fit to approve until she entered an advanced age?
One answer comes through the experience of Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian expatriate and author of Lolita. Thirty years after his death, The Original of Laura was released as an unfinished novel. What remains is far less than the “brilliantly pieced together” work of Wallace’s. As the New York Times puts it, “it’s simply fragments of a novel: the first five chapters, some taking up just a few cards, along with drafts and parts of other chapters, a random phrase or sentence here and there, and some notes.”  Prior to his death, Nabokov insisted that his wife burn the manuscript upon his death.  In this way, Nabokov not only demonstrated foresight over his editors, but also arranged for his final triumph: the preservation of the integrity of The Original of Laura.
 Kovaleski, Serge F., and Alexandra Alter. "In Statement, Harper Lee Backs New Novel." The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 Feb. 2015. Web. 06 Nov. 2015.
 Kovaleski, Serge F., and Alexandra Alter. "Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 July 2015. Web. 06 Nov. 2015.
 Mahler, Jonathan. "The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’." The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 July 2015. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.
 Giraldi, William. "The Suspicious Story Behind Harper Lee's 'Go Set a Watchman'" Newrepublic.com. The New Republic, 13 July 2015. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.
 "Harper Lee Novel 'Go Set a Watchman' Sales Surpass 1.1 Million Copies." WSJ. Wall Street Journal, 20 July 2015. Web. 07 Nov. 2015
 Cunningham, Michael. "Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year - The New Yorker." The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 09 July 2012. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.
 "We're Out of Luck If George RR Martin Dies Before Finishing A Song of Ice and Fire." Unreality Mag. N.p., 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.
 Gates, David. "Nabokov’s Last Puzzle." The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Nov. 2009. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.
 McCrum, Robert. "The Final Twist in Nabokov's Untold Story." The Guardian. The Guardian, 24 Oct. 2009. Web.
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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