Return To Sender: Harper Lee’s Letters Flop At Auction As HarperCollins Launches P.R. Blitz For ‘Go Set A Watchman’

UPDATE, 1 PM: A small cache of intimate letters from Harper Lee to New York architect Harold Caufield failed to sell at auction at Christie’s on Friday. The six letters, from the late 1950s and early ’60s, had a pre-sale estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. But when the bidding stalled at $90,000, they were withdrawn by the owner, a collector with a special interest in work related to the intensely private To Kill A Mockingbird author. In the letters, which were on view before the auction, she revealed mixed feelings about her Alabama hometown (“Five months of a sort of ecclesiastical gloom that is Monroeville at present is really too much”).

PREVIOUS, 9:01 AM PT: As HarperCollins primps for the July 14 release of Harper Lee’s recently re-discovered sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set A Watchman, we can expect a flurry of media activity surrounding the publishing event of the summer. The timing couldn’t be better for Rupert Murdoch’s sons James and Lachlan, as power shifts at the top of 21st Century Fox and News Corp; the latter owns HarperCollins.

News Corp. chief executive Robert Thomson told a London business conference last week that Watchman “has become the most pre-ordered book in publisher HarperCollins’ history.” He declined to give numbers, but the first printing will be an impressive 2 million copies.

Thomson, who said he is one of the few people to have read the highly guarded manuscript, described it, unsurprisingly, as a “fascinating, captivating, important book.” It’s set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill A Mockingbird two decades after the events described in the first novel, published in 1960. Scout has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus. She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.

Controversy has surrounded the book’s publication since HarperCollins executives revealed that none of the negotiations for the book had included the famously reclusive and reputedly stroke-impaired author herself. Two investigations by the state of Alabama found no evidence that the 88-year-old author had been tricked, deceived or abused, concluding that Lee, at home in assisted-living facility, “has opinions and seems to be aware of what is going on with her book and the book deal.”

Documentary film maker Mary MurphyTied to the publication, public television’s lauded American Masters series, produced under the wing of New York’s WNET, has updated Harper Lee: Hey, Boo, its 2012 documentary about Lee from Emmy-winning filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy. It will be broadcast as Harper Lee: American Masters on July 10. The author of Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Murphy was able to read an advance copy of the new novel before updating the film and will live tweet (#HarperLeePBS) during the broadcast.

Go Set A Watchman was written before To Kill A Mockingbird and believed to be lost or destroyed,” said Murphy. “Its remarkable discovery allows readers of Lee’s beloved classic the chance to see Atticus and Scout again. How and why this happened is a mystery we unravel in the new version of the documentary.”

In the New York metro area, the PBS flagship station will also present “THIRTEEN Days of Harper Lee,” a multi-platform event on-air, online and in the community from Sunday, July 5 through Friday, July 17.

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