This column was originally published in August 2015, following the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman.
Harper Lee was once our Upper East Side neighbor living between 81st and 82nd streets, at 1539 York Ave., an address that no longer exits.
She arrived in Manhattan in 1949 from Monroeville, Ala., to become a writer. For eight years she worked at odd jobs to support herself, but like many budding New York novelists who have day jobs, she’d come home too exhausted and distracted to sit down at the typewriter and practice her craft.
After watching Lee struggle and really get no further in her career, two friends, who had come into some money, gifted her with enough to live on for one year, so that she could quit her ticket agent position at BOAC and write full time.
According to the biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, Lee holed up at 1539 York, “needing no more than pen, paper and privacy.”
When she completed the first draft of Go Set A Watchman, the author showed it to her J.B. Lippincott editor, Tay Hohoff, who had quite a number of directives: get rid of the present-day references, focus on the 1930s childhoods of Scout, Jem and Dill, then somehow reference that period’s “Scottsboro Boys” trials, which were in full swing. Hence the trial of Tom Robinson. Hohoff even changed the title, and in July 1960, Lippincott published To Kill A Mockingbird, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Having just finished the newly released Go Set A Watchman, it’s clear Hohoff knew what she was talking about. It’s hard for me to believe that the same person who wrote a masterpiece like Mockingbird wrote Watchman. If I had to choose one word to describe it, that word would be “tedious,” although I kept reading with the hope it would get better. Finishing the book became an obligation — I had to see it through to the end just to pay respect to my literary idol.
Someone told me Harper Lee raked in about $3 million a year from Mockingbird, so I really don’t think she needed her second book published for the money — but clearly someone else did. The publishing police should find that person and put them in literary prison forever.
Part of the cachet of the award-winning tome was that it was her standalone work, but now these two novels, which are not of equal caliber, are placed side-by-side in brick and mortar bookstores, and as comparable reads on Internet sites.
Harper Lee may owe her stories to people she knew in Monroeville, but she owes her success to those she met in New York City.
The world-renowned literary icon came here the same year that E.B. White wrote, “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
May all New York writers be lucky enough to have an editor like Tay Hohoff.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novel, Back To Work She Goes.