Books Magazine

The Editor Behind To Kill A Mockingbird

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

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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