Revisiting Harper Lee’s ‘Mockingbird’

Dannye Powell for column and blog.
Dannye Powell for column and blog.

We’ve been meeting for years, this group of women, now down to five. Sometimes we’re silly, often serious. But rarely do we argue. Until recently, when the subject swerved to Harper Lee’s blockbuster novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

“Definitely not the better book,” two of us insisted to the one who thought it might be. She argued that it presented a more realistic Atticus, a man whose racist views were more in tune with the South of the late ’50s.

“But ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is not art!” I insisted. “It’s didactic and clumsy. The dialogue is wooden. And worst of all, it bored me silly. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ may not be perfect, but it is definitely art.”

I told how I’d read that Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff at Lippincott, worked with her for 2 1/2 years to shape her original manuscript, “Go Set a Watchman,” into the lovable, memorable ‘Mockingbird’ that captured the Pulitzer Prize in 1960.

Our devil’s advocate then asked: So is the result still Harper Lee’s if it’s not the novel she intended?

Absolutely, I answered instinctively. But she set me to thinking. Is “Mockingbird” really Lee’s if she was challenged away from her original effort?

I thought of Thomas Wolfe and the patient Maxwell Perkins, who saw a cleaner shape nesting inside Wolfe’s massive manuscript and helped him to chisel until the brilliant “Look Homeward, Angel” emerged.

And the sharp-eyed Gordon Lish, who curbed Raymond Carver’s wordy genius.

I thought about Celeste Ng’s ardent praise of her editor in her 2014 debut novel, “Everything I Never Told You.” It took Ng four years and multiple drafts to birth that superb novel.

Is the novel still Ng’s? Is “Look Homeward, Angel” still Wolfe’s? Carver’s stories still Carver’s?


“Writing is extremely difficult,” said the late novelist E.L. Doctorow.

It takes patience, struggle, more patience, guidance, more struggle, more guidance.

A serious writer should fall on his or her knees before a wise, sensitive, talented editor who can see beyond the writer’s intentions to something more artful.

So is “Mockingbird” still Harper Lee’s, though an editor sensed a vision and stuck like glue until Lee discovered it for herself?

A resounding yes. Tay Hohoff didn’t write “Mockingbird.” She held up a map. Lee slogged through snow and ice and wind and rain until she found home.

And what of all those skillful editors, lodged mostly in obscurity, while the writers go on to fame and glory?

God bless their souls, I say. May they, along with the writer’s original intentions, rest in peace.