Ever since February 3rd the media — old-fashioned evening news and Twitterverse alike — has been bubbling with comment and speculation about Harper Lee’s “new” book. At long last, fifty-five years after To Kill a Mockingbird, we’ll have another story about Scout, Atticus, and small-town Alabama. The new book, Go Set a Watchman, was written before the classic and put aside at the suggestion (or insistence?) of Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff. Episodes from Scout’s childhood were buried in Lee’s big, messy manuscript [see Comments on my blog post for the reaction of that manuscript’s first reader at Lippincott]; Hohoff must have found those episodes more compelling, and the child’s voice more effective, than the scenes and the voice of the later story and the grown-up Scout.
In an earlier post I wrote about working at J.B. Lippincott in the 1950s, and about Tay Hohoff and the office legend concerning her work with Harper Lee. [The original title of that earlier piece was “Mockingbird Years,” but it took a different direction and became “Once Upon a Time.”] I was impressed and a little intimidated by Miss Hohoff, a respected editor and a challenging presence. She had a deep, slightly hoarse voice: we all smoked in those days, unfortunately, and she had been at it for quite a while. Miss Hohoff not only stood up to the important suits in the office; she had her own suits, some of them pin-striped. It’s not difficult for me to believe that her influence on Lee and on Mockingbird was substantial — more than that, if she was indeed responsible for the decision to tell the story we know in the voice of the nine-year old narrator. Editors actually did this kind of work half a century ago — hard to believe, given the state of the book publishing industry today, but nonetheless true. Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to Watchman. But like lots of others, I’m also concerned about what the “discovery” of the manuscript really means, given Harper Lee’s present circumstances. Most of all, though, this surprising turn of events has me thinking about Tay Hohoff, her legacy, and the ways in which books were edited and published, once upon a time.
Update Feb 14: See comments section for a personal note from the daughter of Go Set a Watchman’s first reader at Lippincott.
Update Feb 28: See my interview with Neely Tucker about my days at Lippincott in the Washington Post Style Blog
On a personal note, Miss Hohoff was always kind to me, and generous. When I left Lippincott in 1959 to await the birth of my first child (it was not “done” in those days to work while visibly pregnant), Miss Hohoff gave me a beautiful pewter cup and spoon, and later that year, a white wooden Christmas tree angel from Bonniers, a bygone but cutting-edge Scandinavian design store on Madison Avenue. I wonder how she found the time. Mockingbird was published in 1960, and in those days there was a long road and a lot of work between manuscript and printed book.