A Harper Lee mystery solved. A mystery remains.

 

Harper Lee as she appeared in the 1960s era when both books were written.
Harper Lee as she appeared in the 1960s era when both books were written.

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.

But why?

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?

She did.

Then again.

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.

Why?

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.”

In Go Set A Watchman, Scout is grown, working in New York and returns to her small Alabama town, trying to make peace with the ghosts of her past.
In Go Set A Watchman, Scout is grown, working in New York and returns to her small Alabama hometown, trying to make peace with the ghosts of her present and her past.

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.

Why?

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.

That’s all.

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.

She did.

A great mystery has been solved. The greater mystery remains. Why wasn’t it solved five decades ago.

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  • Any word on if it will be published?

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Chip, it’s scheduled to be published by HarperCollins in July with an initial print run of one million copies, which isn’t bad for a “patchy” book.

      • Bert Carson

        I need to spend a bit more time with the news – I almost missed this. Now I’m hiking over to Amazon to place my pre-order. Alabama writers have to support each other.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          Didn’t you, Harper, and Truman all run together in Alabama?

          • Bert Carson

            Yep, and Boo was usually with us…

  • Don Newbury

    Fascinating story, and one that needed to be written. Glad you did so, and in such a splendid way.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Don. We all want to see what came from the veiled mind of Harper Lee.

  • Roger Summers

    You can pre-order the book in hardcover for $16.79 via Amazon Prime. It already is a pre-order best seller.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Proof once again, Roger, that readers by authors, not the books.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    We can wait to read the words of Harper Lee, either good or bad. The critics, I’m sure, are sharpening their knives to cut it to pieces. And many will says, “This book would have been good if Truman Capote had helped her write it like he did To Kill A Mockingbird.” Be it right or be it wrong, the myth about Capote’s role in the novel remains forever with us.

  • Maryann Miller

    I am soooo thrilled that another book is coming from the great writer. And thanks so much for the back story of how the manuscript was found. On another note, I never knew about the myth about Capote helping her write Mockingbird. I do know, however, that women writers back then, and even some still, are not considered as good as men and perhaps need a little help.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Maryann: Two bits of interesting information. A lot of literary critics thought Capote helped Harper Lee because he was famous, she was not, and both had been childhood friends. What few realize is that Harper Lee did most of the research for Capote’s In Cold Blood. He conducted the interviews. She tracked down most of the rest of the information for the book. And, Maryann, anyone who has read your books know you don’t need any help from anyone, particularly not a man.

      • Maryann Miller

        I love the tidbits of history. Even though I knew that Harper Lee and Truman Capote grew up in the same town about the same time, I did not know they were friends. Nor did I know about her helping him with his book.
        And thanks so much for the kind words about my writing. I’m blushing. Ooops, maybe not. That is such a womanly thing to do. LOL

  • Darlene Jones

    So intriguing!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      It is, Darlene, but I fear that the next thing we read is that the manuscript is being investigated as a forgery. Life is full of skeptics these days.

  • Mike Smith

    Caleb

    All the Capote stuff is interesting though I think the notion of his possibly ‘helping’ her write Mockingbird in no way diminishes her genius for me. It has been said that the character Dill is supposedly based on Capote. But in the novel Dill takes on his own life for me and I totally dismiss any thought of Capote. I also had read somewhere that she did much of the actual research for In Cold Blood but got little credit for it. Sounds like she was a full collaborator in that project who was under-appreciated for her efforts.

    There may be no truth to this but I always imagined that since Mockingbird was such a wonderful novel perhaps she had no need to write another. Or was concerned that the ‘next’ novel would somehow fall short of the first. Or maybe being a very private person and wanting to live in Monroeville all her life she simply didn’t want to do the celebrity thing which I can appreciate. Wish more of today’s supposed celebs would consider that and get out of our faces.

    But how intriguing that there is another novel. Now we will get to decide what meaning it has for us. If it is anything like the first I expect it too will be teriffic. Certainly what we have been told about it, when and where it is set and the basic plot line, is enough to whet one’s appetite for it, ‘patchiness’ not withstanding.

    I wonder how many outstanding novels and novelists have never been published because some pompous-assed editor squashed them from the outset.

    • Maryann Miller

      There have been many writers at the mercy of pompous-assed editors, Mike. I read once that Zane Grey was dismissed at every publishing house he visited personally in New York. One editor told him to go back home and resume his job as a barber. Thank goodness he persevered.

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