The announcement nearly two weeks ago that HarperCollins will publish a sequel to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” came as a pleasant surprise.
For about 20 seconds.
Then questions sprang up. Is Lee, who’s 88, too fragile – a stroke in 2007 greatly impaired her hearing and her eyesight is nearly gone – to know what she’s agreed to in selling her manuscript, “Go Set a Watchman,” for release in July?
Does her lawyer, Tonja Carter, who discovered the manuscript in a “secure location,” respect the Pulitzer-winning author’s literary reputation as did Lee’s lawyer sister, the late Alice Lee?
I fear someone is weaving a fairy tale of spun glass, and Lee is the one who’s likely to get hurt.
What true writer would choose for an early, unedited manuscript to be paraded raw-boned before the world?
Her beloved editor, the late Tay Hohoff at J.B. Lippincott, worked with Lee in the late 1950s on the manuscript – first titled “Go Set a Watchman,” and later “Atticus” – for more than two years before it evolved into the amazing novel we know as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
According to Charles Shields, Lee’s biographer, Hohoff thought Lee’s early manuscript “a mess.” In “I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee,” Shields quotes Hohoff: “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity – a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning.”
Lucky for Lee, Hohoff liked the young Southerner and believed in her talent. She encouraged her to find a way to link her string of anecdotes and to reconsider her point of view. Lee, who lived almost penniless in a cold-water flat in New York, proved a diligent student.
Shields tells the story of how one evening a frustrated Lee opened the window and threw “the entire draft outside into the snow.” She called Hohoff in tears. The faithful editor told her to “march outside and retrieve the pages.”
Lee rewrote the manuscript three times, switching from third person to first person and finally landing on two narrators – the older Scout and the younger Scout.
What a rarity in today’s New York publishing world to have the expertise, much less the time, of an editor who will guide a promising young writer through draft after messy draft.
“Mockingbird’s” Atticus Finch said it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Is it not as much a sin to allow the “dangling threads” and “lack of unity” of an early novel to see the glaring light of day?