Five years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Louisa Thomas asked the same question I’m going to ask today—Who really wrote ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’?
I can’t help wondering about Harper Lee’s agent and publisher’s involvement during the almost three years before ‘Mockingbird’ appeared on bookshelves in 1960. According to her editor at J.B. Lippincott (Tay Hohoff), Nelle Harper Lee’s manuscript was by no means fit for publication. Hohoff described it, “more a series of antidotes than a fully conceived novel and by no means fit for publication.” (The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times).
Tay Hohoff saw hope for the world when a white lawyer would go full out to represent a Black man. Before all the Civil Rights Leaders of the 50s and 60s there was Atticus Finch showing us ‘freedom for all’. But this idea doesn’t seem to be Harper Lee’s.
When I was new to writing, I submitted a rough draft of my first novel to Gardenia Press, in Wisconsin. The small mid-west press was a far cry from the big publishing houses in NYC but I’d searched for a couple of years for somebody to accept or at least appreciate my writing. I believe Harper Lee did the same. I worked with my editor, Elizabeth Collins, for over a year changing the story from first person to third and learning about point of view and voice, scene breaks and strong verbs. The story slowly improved until Elizabeth suggested I enter it the company’s First Novel Writing Contest 2001 where I won an honorable mention. Gardenia still didn’t think the novel was ready for publication so Elizabeth and I spent another year battling it out. In 2003, Gardenia Press published ‘Child of My Heart’. As much help as I received from Elizabeth Collins, ‘Child’ remained entirely mine. Elizabeth took a heartfelt story and made me write it in proper English.
When I think of Tay Hohoff I’m astonished. Harper Lee brought a subpar novel to Hohoff, a genius editor, and after years of revisions ‘Go Set A Watchman’ evolved into ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’—a best seller, an acclaimed novel, and the winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But who really deserved the Prize?
Tay Hohoff assisted Lee in turning, “a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech” (MichikoKakutani, chief book critic of The New York Times) into one of the most popular and beloved books of all time. Which brings me to this: The 72-year-old Atticus Finch in ‘Watchman’ is not the wise and heroic young lawyer of ‘Mockingbird’ and this older Atticus was a man both Tay Hohoff and Harper Lee refused to show the world. Tay Hohoff died in 1974 at the age of 75. Nelle Harper Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 and is by many accounts completely deaf and blind. Lee is 89 years old and resides in an assisted living facility in Alabama. So who in the world allowed ‘Watchman’ to be published? Tonja Carter, Lee’s estate trustee, lawyer, and friend? And why didn’t Lee or Carter change the character’s names since ‘Watchman’ and ‘Mockingbird’ are supposed to be two completely different stories? I am personally heartsick at the change in Atticus Finch as he aged. It’s an abomination of the character of a beloved American icon.
I guess we’ll see in the coming weeks if ‘Watchman’ flies or bombs. If it bombs then I say the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction should be re-awarded to Tay Hohoff.