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How a Christmas Present Gave Harper Lee the Time to Write To Kill a Mockinbird

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Like the Christ child himself, Atticus Finch was born on Christmas. It was 1956, and Nelle Harper Lee would not be heading home to Alabama for the holidays. She couldn’t get time off from her job as an airline reservationist, so she spent Christmas with her closest friends in New York, Michael and Joy Brown and their two boys. Nelle had shared with the Browns the short stories that she wrote in the little free time that she had—humorous, heartwarming tales of small town southern life that reminded Michael of his own childhood growing up in east Texas. He liked them so much that he recommended Nelle to his agents, Maurice Crain and Annie Laurie Williams, a husband-and-wife team who ran one of the most successful agencies in New York.

Crain read Nelle’s stories and saw real promise in them. But he thought that she should write a novel, which would be easier to sell. It was good advice, but no simple thing to do, not with her airline job, which she needed to make ends meet. Around this same time, Michael experienced a windfall from a musical comedy special that he had sold. That’s when he and Joy had an idea. On Christmas morning, they put an envelope on the tree marked “Nelle.” Inside was a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

Stunned, Nelle responded with a litany of objections. Were they crazy? It was too much money. What if the children got sick? As the Browns batted down each one, it dawned on her that this wasn’t an act of generosity, it was an act of love. Emboldened by their “fearless optimism,” Lee was determined to honor the faith that her friends had shown in her.

She got to work immediately. In January, she started dropping by Crain and Williams’s office each week to hand over new pages. By the end of the month, she had written 150. In another month, she had a full manuscript with the title “Go Set a Watchman.”

It was the story of a struggling young writer in New York who returned to her small Alabama hometown to find that the town and her family had been transformed by racial crisis. The central conflict was between the young woman and her beloved father, a man she knew to be decent and principled but who had inexplicably fallen in with the racist reactionaries. The last name of the father she took from her own family, her mother’s maiden name, Finch. The first name she drew from Roman history, Titus Pomponius Atticus, the friend of Cicero, a “wise, learned and humane man,” she would later explain to a reporter.

On February 28, 1957, Crain sent the manuscript to Lois Cole, an editor at G.P. Putnam’s Sons who was best known for having discovered Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind. Lee had “very real promise,” Cole thought, but the novel was thin. “[T]here is not very much story, or plot, or suspense,” she wrote, “and the last hundred pages do resolve into a series of debates, which are certainly sound and well-expressed, but still debates. It seems, to us, that people can be, and should be, instructed, but that they will take it better if it is all accomplished by a real story.” She asked Crain to send her Lee’s second novel if he failed to place this first one. She included with her letter an application for the New Campus Writing Fellowship, in case Lee wanted help with her next book.

Five days later, Crain sent “Watchman” to Evan Thomas at Harper & Brothers, pitching it as “an eye-opener for many northerners as to southern attitudes, and the reasons for them, in the segregation battle.” Thomas, a Princeton graduate and the son of the six-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas, had recently published Profiles in Courage by the young Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, which would win the Pulitzer Prize the following month. Lee was “a good writer . . . damned good,” Thomas told Crain over the phone, but the novel didn’t have enough story. He wished that Lee “wouldn’t put her heroine in trousers. Somehow having her wear pants just rubs me the wrong way.” Neither did he like how the character cursed her father. But Lee had “potential indeed,” and, like Cole, Thomas asked Crain to send him Lee’s next book if this one didn’t sell.

“Two different manuscripts with two different fates. One found its way to a safety deposit box in Monroeville, Alabama, where it sat all but forgotten for over half a century before being discovered by Lee’s lawyer and published in 2015.”

Crain kept after it, sending the book to Lynn Carrick at J.B. Lippincott on May 13. Meanwhile, since finishing the draft of “Watchman,” Nelle, intent on making the most of her year of artistic freedom, had started a new novel. It grew out of the childhood stories that she had initially shown Crain. The best of those, in Crain’s opinion, had been “Snow on the Mountain,” about a boy who takes out his frustration with the elderly neighborhood shrew by destroying her flowers. Another, “The Cat’s Meow,” Lee had revised in January and given back to Crain when she had passed along the first 50 pages of “Watchman.” By mid-May, Nelle had decided to incorporate these two stories into her new novel. Two weeks later Nelle gave Crain the first 111 pages of a manuscript that she had titled “The Long Goodbye.”

She kept writing, and in roughly another two weeks, on June 13, Crain sent Carrick a complete version of this new, second novel. “[T]his childhood stuff is wonderfully appealing,” Crain wrote. “Possibly this longer and more substantial book would make a better starter than the one you have. She says this could go on and on.” Crain advised Lee to keep writing and eventually she could drop out the duller stuff, holding the book to around 350 or 400 pages. Lee planned to break the novel off after the brother character entered high school, “leaving the four-year-younger sister to a lonely childhood.”

It seems that this second novel, which grew out of Lee’s short stories, is the one that would eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird. The book focused on the childhood and earlier lives of the characters that she had written about in “Watchman.” In July 1957, Nelle described to Joy and Michael Brown how frustrated she had become trying to merge the two books. It was Crain who explained to her that this was a fool’s errand, and that she should go ahead and finish the childhood novel. Then later she could write a bridge novel that would flow into “Watchman.” He showed her sections of a novel in progress by Bonner McMillion, another writer with whom he worked whose fiction was set in the small town South, and who, like Lee, had the ability to “create living characters” and to “recall childhood scenes and moods with complete clarity,” with “the same gentle underlying humor which adds charm to the telling.” Lee loved the passages from McMillion’s work. It hadn’t seemed feasible to her at first to divide the material into separate books and let the childhood novel stand on its own, but then she found herself doing exactly as Crain had said.

By the middle of June, the editors at Lippincott had both of Lee’s manuscripts. The one that Crain had first sent to Carrick under the title “Go Set a Watchman” would be listed in Lippincott’s records as “Atticus.” But the novel that Lippincott eventually signed to a contract on October 17, 1957, was untitled, and Carrick wasn’t the book’s editor. That task fell to Tay Hohoff, the firm’s only female vice president. It seems that the editors changed because the manuscript that Lippincott was interested in changed. Instead of Carrick editing “Watchman,” a political novel set in the midst of the segregation crisis, Hohoff was given the childhood novel that Lee continued to supplement with new pages throughout the summer. Amid the card files that Annie Laurie Williams kept is one with a header labeled “Go Set A Watchman.” It is neatly struck through in pencil, and above it is typed “To Kill A Mocking Bird.”

Two different manuscripts with two different fates. One found its way to a safety deposit box in Monroeville, Alabama, where it sat all but forgotten for over half a century before being discovered by Lee’s lawyer and published in 2015. The other, revised and reworked for another two years and published in 1960, became one of the most successful books in American publishing history. In some ways, it’s a familiar story. Many if not most successful novelists have a drawer in which an earlier, apprentice manuscript is tucked away. Yet Harper Lee’s novels are different. Conceived back-to-back in the first six months of 1957 but published 55 years apart, both became a kind of Rorschach test for the politics of race in the period that they were published. They are unusual, too, in their paradoxical treatment of one of the most beloved characters in all of American literature, the orienting figure of both novels, that touchstone of decency and goodness himself, Atticus Finch.

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Joseph Crespino Atticus Finch The Biography

From Atticus Finch: The BiographyUsed with permission of Basic Books. Copyright © 2018 by Joseph Crespino.

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