A Harper Lee mystery solved. A mystery remains.
February 5, 2015
IT WAS A LONG TIME COMING, this yellowed, wrinkled manuscript known as Go Set A Watchman that Harper Lee wrote fifty-five years ago, was afraid no one would like it or read it and promptly lost it.
Or maybe she simply misplaced it.
With time, she forgot about it.
A big-time, hotshot New York editor at JB Lippincott read it back in 1960, said he thought she had a little talent but felt that, overall, the book was patchy, whatever that means, and awkwardly structured, whatever that means.
She was a new writer. He had no idea who she was. Harper lived, God forbid, in some little Alabama burg called Monroeville.
What good could come out of Monroeville, besides, of course, Truman Capote?
One literary genius from Monroeville was quite enough.
Surely there was none other.
Being a good editor, he employed every delaying tactic he could trying to get rid of her. He asked her to re-write the book. Sound familiar?
The editor still didn’t like it.
He had never expected her to re-write the book the first time, and certainly not the second.
So how, he must have wondered, could he put the lady off one more time?
As eighty-year-year old Harper Lee recalled, “My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks of Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.”
And she gave the world To Kill A Mockingbird.
It won the Pulitzer Prize.
It has sold more than forty million copies.
Year after year it tops the list of the world’s best-loved books.
And everyone wondered: What will Harper Lee write next?
They found out.
She wrote nothing.
As Harper said in a 1964 interview: “I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place.” When it did, she said, it “was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected … like being hit over the head and knocked cold.”
But Harper Lee knew she had written Go Set A Watchman.
Why didn’t she mention it?
A quick sequel to the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, could have meant millions.
A quick sequel to the Pulitzer-Prize winning To Kill A Mockingbird would have guaranteed millions.
In time, movie producers would have killed or broken the bank to acquire it.
Yet Harper Lee remained quiet.
Perhaps she thought the novel wasn’t good enough to be published. After all, an editor had already rejected it once, twice, three times.
Perhaps she couldn’t find the manuscript.
Perhaps she thought she had lost it.
Perhaps she thought the editor still had it.
And if he remained quiet and didn’t tell anyone about the manuscript, she reasoned, the story certainly wasn’t any good.
That begs the next question.
The editor knew the manuscript existed.
He knew the re-writes existed.
Why didn’t he mention it?
Was he afraid he had lost it?
Or misfiled it?
Or misplaced it?
If he had, it was a sin that warranted him being shot or at least heavily flogged and the point of his pencil broken.
It didn’t matter if the novel was patchy.
It didn’t matter if the novel was structured awkwardly.
With a little editing, Go Set A Watchman was a best seller waiting to happen. Why wasn’t someone – Lee, an editor, or a publisher, or all three, moving heaven and earth, crawling through filing cabinets, closets, trash cans, dumpsters, shoe boxes, and land fills, leaving no stone unturned in an effort to track it down?
Doesn’t make sense now.
Why did it make sense then?
But the manuscript was tucked away in the dark, tucked away in secret, tucked away where no one could find it, tucked away where no one looked anymore and had not looked in a long time.
Back in the autumn, Tonia Carter, Harper Lee’s close friend and lawyer, began wondering if the original manuscript of Mockingbird was still in good condition. It would be a shame if time and neglect had taken its toll.
She went to the secure archives in Monroeville and began combing through all of the material associated with novel.
She found the manuscript all right.
It was fine.
But what was that stack of papers attached to the back of it? Tonia figured it was probably one of the re-writes.
The title had been changed.
But as she thumbed through the pages, she realized that the characters were familiar. She had read about them before in Mockingbird. But they had nothing to do with the original storyline. Its setting was twenty years after Mockingbird, which had taken place during the brooding days of the Great Depression.
In this version, the plot focused on those difficult and trying times when the South was caught in the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and the sudden rise of racial politics.
It was, no doubt, the first time the missing manuscript had been seen in fifty-five years.
So why hadn’t Harper Lee written another novel?
Now we know.
A great mystery has been solved. The greater mystery remains. Why wasn’t it solved five decades ago.