Law in Popular Culture

Harper Lee's will is unsealed; will her letters at Emory be more revealing?

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Harper Lee in this 2007 file photo (Rob Carr/AP).

An Alabama court has unsealed a will signed by Harper Lee eight days before her 2016 death, but the document provides little information for those interested in learning more about her decision to publish a second novel and the disposition of her assets.

The will was unsealed Tuesday after her estate withdrew its opposition to a New York Times lawsuit seeking its disclosure. The will named Lee’s longtime lawyer, Tonja Carter, as executor and gave her “wide-ranging powers to shepherd Ms. Lee’s literary legacy and the rest of her assets,” according to a Times article.

The document is a pour-over will directing that anything in Lee’s estate goes into the trust she created. According to the Times, “The document’s lack of transparency will likely fuel skepticism among those who feel that Ms. Carter had amassed too much power over Ms. Lee’s career and legacy.”

Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, was published 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman features Scout as an adult and portrays Atticus Finch as a person with racist and segregationist beliefs.

The controversy over Lee’s decision to publish the book led to two probes that found she was apparently aware of the publishing deal and there had been no abuse or neglect.

Court papers identify Lee’s closest living relatives as a niece and three nephews, and they are expected to receive an undisclosed portion of the estate through the trust, according to the Times.

Though the will did little to solve mysteries regarding Lee, there is another new source of information. Emory University in Atlanta has purchased letters written by Lee to one of her friends between 1956 and 1961, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. The letters were owned by retired lawyer Paul Kennerson, who told the Union-Tribune that they will complement the work of an Emory professor who is writing a biography of Lee’s father

The collection has to go through a care and documentation process before it is available for public viewing, the Emory Wheel reports. The letters reflect some of the themes in Harper Lee’s writing, according to Rosemary Magee, director of Emory’s rare books library. They are “revealing” and “significant,” Magee told the Wheel.

“You can see through her correspondence how her ideas evolved,” Magee said. “[Lee was] living in a time where there’s great change occurring in the world around her, both throughout the country as a whole and in the South. Her perceptions to that and her place in it are very revealing.”

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