To Kill A Mockingbird

Ever since Feb 3rd the media – old-fashioned evening news and Twitterverse alike – has been bubbling with comment and speculation about Harper Lee’s “new” book. At long last, fifty-five years after To Kill a Mockingbird, we’ll have another story about Scout, Atticus, and small-town Alabama. The new book, Go Set a Watchman, was written before the classic and put aside at the suggestion (or insistence?) of Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff. Episodes from Scout’s childhood were buried in Lee’s big, messy manuscript [see Comments below for the reaction of that manuscript’s first reader at Lippincott]; Hohoff must have found those episodes more compelling, and the child’s voice more effective, than the scenes and the voice of the later story and the grown-up Scout.

Tay Hohoff, 1973

Tay Hohoff, 1973

In an earlier post I wrote about working at J.B. Lippincott in the 1950s, and about Tay Hohoff and the office legend concerning her work with Harper Lee. [The original title of that earlier piece was actually “Mockingbird Years,” but it took a different direction and became “Once Upon a Time.”] I was impressed and a little intimidated by Miss Hohoff, a respected editor and a challenging presence. She had a deep, slightly hoarse voice: we all smoked in those days, unfortunately, and she had been at it for quite a while. Miss Hohoff not only stood up to the important suits in the office; she had her own suits, some of them pin-striped. It’s not difficult for me to believe that her influence on Lee and on Mockingbird was substantial – more than that, if she was indeed responsible for the decision to tell the story we know in the voice of the nine-year old narrator. Editors actually did this kind of work half a century ago – hard to believe, given the state of the book publishing industry today, but nonetheless true. Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to Watchman. But like lots of others, I’m also concerned about what the “discovery” of the manuscript really means, given Harper Lee’s present circumstances. Most of all, though, this surprising turn of events has me thinking about Tay Hohoff, her legacy, and the ways in which books were edited and published, once upon a time.

Update Feb 14: See comments section below from the daughter of Go Set a Watchman‘s first manuscript reader at J.B. Lippincott.

Update Feb 28: See my interview with the Washington Post’s Neely Tucker about Tay Hohoff, Harper Lee, and Lippincott in the Washington Post Style Blog

On a personal note, Miss Hohoff was always kind to me, and generous. When I left Lippincott in 1959 to await the birth of my first child (it was not “done” in those days to work while visibly pregnant), Miss Hohoff gave me a beautiful pewter cup and spoon, and later that year, a white wooden Christmas tree angel from Bonniers, a bygone but cutting-edge Scandinavian design store on Madison Avenue. I wonder how she found the time. Mockingbird was published in 1960, and in those days there was a long road and a lot of work between manuscript and printed book.  

19 thoughts on “Mockingbird Years

  1. Pingback: Once Upon a Time | The Oldest Vocation

  2. Hi Crissy, I am getting more inquiries about my mother’s story (including Corriere della Sera in Milan) as you predicted now that the book has come out. I wish my mother was here to enjoy it – although she would probably not enjoy it (!)
    Love, Nanda


  3. Pingback: Great Editors–Tay Hohoff and To Kill a Mockingbird | Linda Taylor's Blog

  4. Pingback: Introducing Tay Hahoff, The Editor Who Helped Transform “Go Set A Watchman” Into “To Kill A Mockingbird” « Movie City News

  5. Pingback: Once Upon a Time | The Oldest Vocation

  6. I’m so interested to come across your post! Tay was my great aunt and I remember visiting her and Arthur when I was a boy. They visited us in return, always bearing gifts of whatever Lippincott had published for 8 year old boys since we’d last seen each other. There was some kind of family falling out and it wasn’t until I entered publishing many years later that I discovered her connection to To Kill A Mockingbird. I so admire her and wish I could have known her as an adult and publishing professional, my vocation of the past 40 years…..

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m so glad you wrote! We must have crossed paths, in a way, when I worked in the department that produced books for 8-year olds. I’d love to know what you think about Watchman, when you see it. Thanks for getting in touch —

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Clarissa. My impression is that Watchman is essentially the manuscript that was originally submitted to Lippincott, that evolved into Mockingbird. Is that your sense, too?


    • in response to Tom Hallock:
      I think your great aunt wrote TKAM. I taught that book for over 20 years, and it seemed like there were two “voices,” the secondary voice being the heavy pedantic one that opens the book and has a few middle chapters. I always thought the better voice was Truman Capote, but I think now it was your aunt. I just read the first chapter (free online) of Go Set a Watchman. It sounds like the poorer writing in TKAM.


    • HI Joan, all I know is that I would love to know the process by which the Atticus of Watchman became the Atticus of Mockingbird! And I wish Tay was still around so I could find out. People seem to think Atticus is a historical figure whose racism is now revealed, instead of a fictional character who evolved through the process of writing and editing 55 years ago…The Atticus of Watchman is in some sense the Father of the Atticus in Mockingbird..

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: How ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ came to be: More Evidence - Magng

  8. Pingback: How ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ came to be: More Evidence - The Washington Post

    • I wish my mother (Marguerite Ridge Perrone, a former Eisenhower Fellowships Program Officer) was still with us so that I could ask her! An English major at Swarthmore College (Class of 1952), she had been working in publishing for about six or seven years when she was asked to be a “first reader” of Harper Lee’s manuscript [at J.B. Lippincott]. She later told the story on herself as not being able to recognize what became one of the important novels of the twentieth century. My mother said the manuscript was very long (did it arrive in a paper bag, a suitcase?), and seemed to cover Harper’s Lee’s whole life. A woman of the 1950s, my mother found Lee’s description of her first menstrual period particularly inappropriate!

      Like you, my mother said that Tay Hohoff radically edited the manuscript, eliminating much extraneous material to make it a manageable length. She always felt that Miss Hohoff should have gotten a writing credit! I’m pretty sure that what my mother read included components of what became “Go Set a Watchman.”

      Liked by 2 people

  9. My mother also told me the story about Tay Hohoff and Harper Lee. My mother Marguerite (née Ridge) Perrone was the first reader of the manuscript and recommended that it should be rejected!

    Liked by 1 person

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