Yesterday the novel “Go Set A Watchman” by Harper Lee was published. With its publicity came to light that an invisible hand existed for her previous, Pulitzer prize winning novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” This skillful hand was that of her editor, Tay Hohoff, who at the time worked at Lippincott.
As the story goes Hohoff perceived impressive talent in the young Harper Lee but the manuscript she offered was a mess. It consisted of a series of anecdotes that lacked coherence and failed to uplift the reader.
Over the next two and a half years, Harper Lee, who to her credit was dogged enough to persist in her writing effort, wisely followed her editor’s counsel and repeatedly rewrote her manuscript. Her industry ultimately gave rise to her masterpiece, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
The book this week by Harper Lee was written earlier than Mockingbird and is reported to lack the uplifting moral courage shown by Atticus Finch in Mockingbird, instead depicting the aging Atticus as a typical southern white male bigot of the 1950s. What a shift from the wise and courageous Atticus Finch we loved in Mockingbird and portrayed by Gregory Peck in the movie version.
“Go Set A Watchman” was written prior to “To Kill A Mockingbird” and lacked the skillful editing by Tay Hohoff. Could there be a clearer example of an editor’s impact? For my money I would rather re-read Mockingbird.
I am sure other examples exist of unsung editors who took incompletely developed manuscripts and fashioned them into meaningful and successful pieces of literature.
In my own situation with my book, “Carrying the Black Bag” (Texas Tech University Press due out November 15), I have gained a huge amount of respect for my editor, Joanna Conrad.
For example my “problem child” of a chapter did not fit the mold of the others in that the ill person was not personally known to me. Nevertheless, Adolf Hitler had Parkinson’s disease and, in my opinion, the disease affected his cognitive ability and impacted his conduct of World War II.
My premise is that his concern over his life-shortening Parkinson’s disease and heart disease prompted him prematurely to invade the Soviet Union. Also his cognitive dysfunction due to advanced PD delayed the counterattack by the German forces at the Battle of Normandy, establishing a second front.
Joanna liked the information in the Hitler chapter but not its academic tone. She skillfully guided me to weave the information into the book in a similar fashion to the other patient stories. Like Harper Lee before Mockingbird was published, I too am an unpublished popular author with little choice but comply with my editor but, like Lee, also I also listened carefully to my wise editor’s advice. This I believe is good advice for novice writers.
Here I am sure any comparison between Harper Lee’s masterpiece and my humble effort stops. Nevertheless, I am no less appreciative of Joanna Conrad than Harper Lee was of Tay Hohoff.