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The Editor Behind To Kill A Mockingbird

The recent release of Go Set A Watchman is an interesting case study in the development of a classic novel.

With the novel’s publication last week, the New York Times published an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the process that transformed Go Set A Watchman into To Kill A Mockingbird several years later.

In the spring of 1957, a 31-year-old aspiring novelist named Harper Lee — everyone called her Nelle — delivered the manuscript for “Go Set a Watchman” to her agent to send out to publishers, including the now-defunct J. B. Lippincott Company, which eventually bought it.

At Lippincott, the novel fell into the hands of Therese von Hohoff Torrey — known professionally as Tay Hohoff — a small, wiry veteran editor in her late 50s. Ms. Hohoff was impressed. “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott.

But as Ms. Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” During the next couple of years, she led Ms. Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Hohoff was the invisible hand behind Mockingbird. She passed away in 1975, and one has to wonder what she would think about this novel’s publication.

Watchman has been only lightly copyedited, so it’s much in the same state it was when Hohoff first read the manuscript in 1957. She was said to be highly protective of Harper Lee (who also went by “Nelle”).

Year after year, Ms. Hohoff tried to gently coax a second book out of Ms. Lee, while at the same time fending off her impatient colleagues.

“Lippincott’s sales department would have published Harper Lee’s laundry list,” Mr. Burlingame said. “But Tay really guarded Nelle like a junkyard dog. She was not going to allow any commercial pressures or anything else to put stress on her to publish anything that wouldn’t make Nelle proud or do justice to her. Anxious as we all were to get another book from Harper Lee, it was a decision we all supported.”

But with Hohoff long passed and with an elderly Harper Lee rumored to be in a questionable mental state, we now have Go Set A Watchman available for the world to read.

The more I think about it, the more I believe there’s no way Harper Lee’s editor would’ve allowed this “novel” to be published. Why would anyone want a first draft that was drastically changed to see the light of day?

I’ll share more of my thoughts about the novel on Thursday.

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22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Why are we dealing in sourceless rumours? To suggest that Harper Lee is in a “questionable mental state” is despicable.

    Liked by 1 person

    July 21, 2015
    • Actually, this has been all over the media. I too believe Harper Lee is not fully functioning. Googling will bring up a number of stories about this.

      Like

      July 22, 2015
  2. glovergrace #

    Reblogged this on EverythingGracie.

    Like

    July 21, 2015
  3. I so agree with your conclusion. But they did it to Hemingway (The Garden of Eden) and Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon), so why not Harper Lee?

    Like

    July 22, 2015
    • While this is true, Ron, Fitzgerald’s craftsmanship had so improved (150+ short stories, 4 novels) by the time he had finished the first half of The Last Tycoon, some prominent critics observed it might have been, once completed, a greater work of art than Gatsby. It was also the first of his novels to deal with an industry – a prominent industry at the center of America’s feverish conception of itself. Monroe Stahr was modeled after Hollywood ‘boy-wonder’ Irving Thalberg (who Fitzgerald knew professionally and somewhat socially) and would certainly have been more ‘fleshed-out’ than Jay Gatsby. The quality of the prose in Tycoon is of the highest order and the novel is Fitzgerald’s first to feature a female narrator. We really lost something when FSF died in December 1940 at age 44.

      Now, compare the first chapter of Go Set A Watchman with the first chapter of To Kill A Mockingbird and one can see immediately the ‘first draft’ nature of the former. This has not been contested. In Mockingbird, what follows after “That was the summer Dill came to us.” on page four, is pure enchantment. Nabokov said that the writer is first a storyteller, then a teacher (or ‘moralist’ as Fitzgerald would have it) – which is not much higher on the scale – but the major writer is an enchanter. Whether the major writer creates one book or a dozen, it is this enchantment that makes us forget we are reading, transporting us instead into this other reality wherein lies the wonder and the possibility for our own transformation. These are the works of art we remember as touchstones in our lives, the books that change who we are in those subtle ways we carry with us on our personal journey. Sadly, with the publication of Watchman we lose a little of that Mockingbird enchantment and are the more impoverished for it.

      Liked by 1 person

      July 23, 2015
  4. I actually didn’t realise that the manuscript was written so long ago! This will definitely change the way I approach the novel when I get round to reading it. Very interesting!

    Like

    July 22, 2015
  5. Very interesting post!
    I think it’s important that readers know exactly what kind of text they have in their hands before they read it. Having said that, it will be an honour to read Lee’s edited-for-sale manuscript!

    Like

    July 22, 2015
  6. I don’t think Harper Lee would want it published either, if she were fully functioning.

    Like

    July 22, 2015
  7. You never know; maybe she needs the money.

    Like

    July 22, 2015
  8. I’ve read a few things that suggest it was never intended to be published. I’m hesitant to read it for that reason.

    Like

    July 23, 2015
  9. Noelle #

    I read it last week, but I approached it as a draft, not as a complete novel. With that perspective in mind, and as someone with no particular emotional attachment to Mockingbird, I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. Although it’s not a fully formed novel, Lee’s genius is clear. My primary take-away was that Lee’s refusal to publish again until now has been a huge loss for American literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    July 24, 2015
  10. Reblogged this on Ms M's Bookshelf and commented:
    Out of fairness, I thought I should let my readers see another point of view along with comments provided by Robert’s readers at 101 Books. Enjoy my Sunday reblog!

    Like

    July 25, 2015
  11. educationalproreview.wordpress.com

    Study Books using this product

    Like

    July 26, 2015
  12. This explains all of the negative reviews towards Go Set A Watchman. If I get to read it, I will keep this in mind.

    Like

    August 6, 2015
  13. I will read it and tried to hold it, understand it and will think about it …

    Like

    August 24, 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A Little Reminder That Harper Lee Was An Incredible Writer | 101 Books
  2. A Little Reminder That Harper Lee Was An Incredible Writer | DigitaMart
  3. A Little Reminder That Harper Lee Was An Incredible Writer | README.NG
  4. A Round Up of Harper Lee Content | 101 Books

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