February 10, 2015

Two for Tuesday: Is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman a new book?


Harper Lee's new or not-quite-new book has a cover

Harper Lee’s new or not-quite-new book has a cover. UPDATE: This is NOT the final cover for Go Set a Watchman

Alex: Hi Mark! I hope you’re doing well. This is normally the time when we make small talk, but we have a lot to get to this week. I understand you did a bit of reading over the weekend?

Mark: I certainly did! First I started to reread To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time since the seventh grade, and I thought it was great. Forty million Americans can’t be wrong!

And then I read another book with the word “mockingbird” in the title: Charles Shields’s Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. It has some flaws (do we need to know how many manholes there were in New York when Harper Lee moved there? I don’t think so!), but it’s well-researched (at least as far as I could tell) and paints a fascinating portrait of Lee, especially in her early years. It also had what seemed, given the news over the last week, like actual revelations.

Alex: This story has been revelation-heavy, though one of the reasons it’s fascinated me is that the whole truth (for lack of a better phrase) doesn’t seem to have come out. New details have emerged with some regularity—the Times had another piece yesterday—but they’ve been fairly predictable details: the book is being pitched as a discovery, and a fairly remarkable one at that—the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird that was lost for fifty years!

But Lee’s agent, Tonja Carter—a controversial figure for some time, if you’ve followed Lee’s recent legal drama—seems to be controlling who gets what information and when (it’s my understanding she controls who can speak to Lee in the first place). So when Lee’s international rights agent told the Guardian that Lee was “excited” he most likely did so with Carter’s permission.

As a result, we have what amounts to a turf war, with one camp (largely comprised of people with skin in the game, so to speak—agents, publishers, editors, etc.) arguing that this is a good idea that Lee supports. The existing evidence supports this position, but they also have complete control over the narrative so . . . well, of course it would. On the other hand, there are a host of people, most of whom have no connection to Lee and some who are old friends or acquaintances, who have expressed skepticism about Lee’s agency. (Full disclosure: I am one of those people.) We can talk more about the tricky issues of consent and agency that are at work here and where the burden of proof lies, but in the meantime: what does Shields’s book have to say?

Mark: I should say, first, that Shields’s biography was unauthorized, (though he did speak to Lee’s sister Alice, and many others in Lee’s orbit), so it’s not as if it’s the gospel truth. (Not that it would be if it were authorized.) Still, the book seems solid, which is why I was very surprised by what Shields seems to suggest about Go Set a Watchman.

The story about Watchman that we’ve seen so far—and to an extent, it’s a story Shields has repeated in interviews, as well—is that the new book is related to Mockingbird, but a distinct work. This is not the impression I got from Shields’s book.

Alex: Interesting. Why not? I had been under the impression that it existed as a kind of dress rehearsal for Mockingbird, but that it was, by and large, distinct—hence the different title/different setting, etc.

Mark: Here’s the timeline according to Shields: by November 1956, Lee has written a few short stories she’s happy with, and her friend Michael Brown puts her in touch with his agent, Annie Laurie Williams. Williams, it turns out, actually handles dramatic rights, but her husband, Maurice Crain, is a literary agent, so Lee gets to him. Crain likes one of the stories, but tells her she should write a novel, because, as we still hear sixty years later, novels are much easier to sell than story collections.

At this point, Brown and his wife Joy famously give Lee an amazing Christmas gift: enough money to live on for one year, so that she can leave her job at an airline and write full-time. Lee gets to work, and in January 1957, she comes to Crain with the first fifty pages of a novel called . . . Go Set a Watchman.

Alex: Is there anything else about Go Set a Watchman before this?

Mark: No, this is the first mention of the book in the biography. So Lee continues to feed Crain more pages throughout the month of February, and after a couple of months of revisions, Crain is ready to submit the novel to publishers. In addition to what I’m sure were countless smaller edits, he makes a big one: he tells her to change the title of the novel to Atticus, after the book’s main character.

Crain submits Atticus to the publisher J. B. Lippincott, and a few days later, Lee goes to meet with a team of Lippincott’s editors, including Tay Hohoff, who also worked with Thomas Pynchon. (Apparently she initially rejected The Crying of Lot 49.) The editors are not thrilled with Atticus: they tell her that the novel reads less like a novel, and more like a few stories woven together—it doesn’t feel like a coherent whole.

Lee is discouraged, but Hohoff, to her great credit, is impressed enough to give Lee some encouragement, and at the end of the summer, Lee resubmits the manuscript. Hohoff is still not totally sold: “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning.” But in spite of this, Hohoff acquires the novel anyway, and Lee gets to work on revising Atticus. She rewrites the novel three times: the first draft is in the third person, then she changes it to the second person, and the final draft is narrated by a blend of the younger Scout and the older Scout.

Hohoff and Lee work very closely together over the next two years: Shields quotes Hohoff’s recollection of the editing process, which appeared in a book Lippincott published to celebrate its 175th anniversary:

[Lee needed] professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure. After a couple of false starts, the story line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision—there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in Nelle’s [Harper Lee’s] own vision of it—the true stature of the novel became evident.

And according to Shields, one other important thing happens during the editing process: Hohoff persuades Lee to change the title of the book from Atticus to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Alex: So basically the book starts as Go Set a Watchman (horrible title) then becomes Atticus (good title), before eventually being released as To Kill a Mockingbird (great title)? It’s one book, in other words. Go Set a Watchman has been presented as a sequel rather than a draft, but it’s actually a draft more than a sequel? Obviously we’re dealing in semantics to some extent here—it’s not entirely a sequel and it’s not entirely a draft—but getting this balance right seems important to me. And (ugh I’m repeating myself endlessly) this seems a lot more like a first draft than a sequel.

Mark: That’s right. As I said above, in recent interviews, Shields talks about Go Set a Watchman as an early work distinct from To Kill a Mockingbird. But if I’m reading his biography right—and I think I am!—it seems that Watchman is really just a very early draft of Mockingbird. The trajectory according to Shields is clear: Watchman is retitled to Atticus, Atticus is submitted to Lippincott, it’s revised and resubmitted, it’s acquired and edited over the next two years, the title is changed to To Kill a Mockingbird.

I should add that a condensed version of this sequence also appears in Mary McDonagh Murphy’s book Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird—she and Shields refer to the same source: an essay Hohoff wrote for the Literary Guild’s magazine.

Alex: I mean it certainly seems like there are pretty dramatic differences between Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, and those may have contributed to the dominant sense that Watchman is a distinct work from Mockingbird and a sequel. It’s certainly distinct enough that it can be presented as a sequel, and that’s how Harper and/or Carter presented it to the New York Times, which announced the book’s publication.

And again, as far as drafts go, from what you’ve mentioned this seems like a very distinct draft! In any case, I certainly don’t blame Harper for playing up the “sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird” angle rather than the “early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird” one. If there’s doubt—and there does seem to be—you go with the doubt that sells more copies. And this is a once-in-a-lifetime publishing opportunity as a sequel—a draft of the novel, even a draft as distinct as this one, doesn’t have quite the same ring.

I’m emphasizing the distinct differences between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman in part because it seems clear that the latter doesn’t read like a draft of the former. But if Go Set a Watchman is so distinct from To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s distinct because Lee was, by all accounts, a perfectionist. That perfectionism strikes me as important, given the delicate issue of Lee’s consent and the incredible level of speculation surrounding this book.

This is being treated as a “lost” manuscript, but it seems more likely (to me, at least) that Lee never saw it as such—she saw it as an abandoned draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s an important difference and it’s one that doesn’t do a lot to quell my doubts about this whole thing. Why would a perfectionist be excited about the world seeing a draft? Especially an unedited draft? The whole thing strikes me as, well, odd. To say the least.

Mark: Right. And Shields actually says that one reason why the rewriting and the editing went so slowly was that Lee was a “perfectionist.” (I put those quotation marks there not because he sarcastically called her a perfectionist, but because he actually called her a perfectionist.) He quotes Hohoff, who wrote that Lee “spent her days and nights in the most intense efforts to set down what she wanted to say in the way which would best say it to the reader,” which is, of course, a bit of editorial flattery/hyperbole, but also seems true enough.

You know, the reason I took the unusual step of actually bothering to do research for a Two for Tuesday post, rather than just reading Twitter for a few minutes and letting you rant at me about football and/or bad music (my usual method) was that the day this book was announced, I read (or perhaps reread) Michelle Dean’s fantastic piece from last summer, on Lee, Tonja Carter, and the Marja Mills book, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. (We also wrote about Mills’s book last year.) Dean’s report strikes me as a key text—it argues, very convincingly, that the story of Lee’s recent years (and particularly of the publication of Go Set a Watchman) can be told very differently from its official iteration.

Oh, and one more thing: I promise that this is my last mention of Shields, whom I’ve been invoking in almost Talmudic tones throughout this post, but given his knowledge of the subject, it’s worth mentioning the answer he gave when he was asked a very crucial question: why now? This is what he told the International Business Times: “It’s because her sister is dead. Alice [who died in November, 2014 at the age of 103] was in control of Harper’s life, of what she signed. But now the lid’s off, and a book written half a century ago is going to be published.”

So that’s . . . something.

Alex: It certainly is. Shields’s theory essentially sums up the dominant counter-narrative—that Alice Lee was Harper Lee’s protector and once Alice died, the barbarians were at the gates. I have my issues with aspects of that narrative—we limit Harper Lee’s agency in a way we wouldn’t limit Thomas Pynchon’s, for instance—though those don’t seem to apply to Shields’s comments.

Nevertheless, there’s a disconcerting amount of evidence that supports the fact that we’re not getting the whole truth and that Lee’s statements may not be coming from Lee herself. In Dean’s piece—and Dean’s writing on Lee is unsurprisingly excellent—it’s clear that many statements that appear to come from Lee actually come from Carter, without necessarily the former’s knowledge or consent. Carter not only controls Lee’s media inquiries, but the writer’s social schedule as well—no one sees Lee, if some reports are to be believed, without Carter’s consent.

In 2013, a friend told the Sydney Daily Telegraph that a series of strokes had left Lee “95 percent blind, profoundly deaf, bound to a wheelchair. Her short-term memory is completely shot, and poor in general. She knows who I am. Every couple of weeks or so I load her up in my car and we, as she says, ‘escape’ for the day.”

Finally, Shields’s knowledge of the manuscript suggests that this may not be the “discovery” it’s being pitched as—friends of Lee certainly knew about the book over the last 50 years, though they may have seen it as a draft, rather than a distinct work.

Does that mean that we shouldn’t take this story at face value? Absolutely not. And, ironically, there’s probably no way to find out without further invading Harper Lee’s privacy—the issue of consent is a tricky one with works like these and it’s especially tricky when the author in question is not well and cares deeply about her privacy. I certainly don’t know what state Lee is in or what she wants; I suspect we may never know the answer to those questions.

At the same time, the whole story is notable in part because nearly every element of it is contested, at least as far as I can tell. But just because we don’t know the answer—and maybe we’ll never know!—to a question doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking. In any case, it’s certainly worth asking when consent is implied, rather than proven.

This is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime publishing moment. But novelty and opportunity certainly aren’t justifications in and of themselves. Shields’s theory about Alice Lee may be just that, but it’s not a conspiracy theory. Mostly, though, I just hope this story has a happy ending. Like To Kill a Mockingbird.

Mark: This has been an unusually serious Two for Tuesday. Perhaps instead of writing 2,500 words about Harper Lee, we could have followed Michael Schaub’s lead and written eighteen words on Milan Kundera. Next time, we’ll aim for Schaubian concision.

Oh and you know what, I’m going to pick the songs this time. For some reason, on Twitter yesterday, people were talking about the Traveling Wilburys. Which reminded me that the Traveling Wilburys are great. So here’s “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” and “Last Night.”