How Harper Lee Went From Wannabe Writer To The Jane Austen Of Alabama | KERA News

How Harper Lee Went From Wannabe Writer To The Jane Austen Of Alabama

Jul 10, 2015
Originally published on July 10, 2015 7:22 pm

Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman is one of the most anticipated books of the year. (It comes out on Tuesday, but the first chapter was published Friday in several newspapers.) Lee wrote it before her classic debut, To Kill a Mockingbird, but it's set many years later and it features some of the same characters. It opens with Scout, now grown up and known as Jean Louise Finch, taking a train from New York City back to her hometown in Alabama. Lee sets the scene:

"Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia's hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires."

That's a train ride Lee would know well. She split her time between New York and Monroeville, Ala., until moving back home for good in 2007. And like the character of Jean Louise Finch, Lee doesn't like to fly.

Lee moved to New York in 1948. As Charles Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, explains, "Lee came to New York believing that it was the literary capital of the world and that's where she belonged as a young wannabe writer."

But success did not come easily. "She got a job as an airline reservationist at Eastern Airlines," Shields says, "and she wrote at night and on the weekends while working as a reservationist for about eight years."

Lee's fortunes began to improve at the end of 1956 when her friends Michael and Joy Williams Brown gave Nelle, as those close to Lee call her, a generous Christmas gift: enough money to spend a year writing. That's when she completed the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman. The novel helped her find an agent, who got her signed to the publisher J.B. Lippincott. But Go Set a Watchman was never released. Instead, Lee's editor urged her to expand on the flashback passages set during Scout's childhood. Lee spent more than two years writing and rewriting the novel that became known as To Kill a Mockingbird.

Biographer Shields says the notes of Lee's first literary agent, Annie Laurie Williams, indicate that she thought of Go Set a Watchman as just an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Those papers, housed at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, even contain a notecard where you can clearly see Go Set a Watchman crossed out and To Kill a Mockingbird written over it. Shields says that's the only explanation for why Go Set a Watchman wasn't published as a follow-up to Lee's phenomenally successful debut.

"If Go Set a Watchman was already in the can, that could have come out almost immediately," Shields says. "But instead it wasn't brought to market, so apparently it wasn't a contender."

Jonathan Burnham — publisher of Harper, the HarperCollins imprint that's releasing Go Set a Watchman — disagrees with Williams' assessment. He says it's an entirely separate book that stands on its own.

"The notion that Go Set a Watchman is an early draft of Mockingbird I think we can discount," Burnham says. "It's a book written by a young woman set in her own times, quite unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, which casts itself back. And it's a novel, as people will discover, that addresses the political issues of the 1950s head-on."

Burnham says the publisher is releasing the novel largely unedited, in accordance with Lee's wishes.

Why Lee never wanted to release the novel until now remains a mystery, and the 89-year-old isn't talking. In her last full interview more than 50 years ago, with radio station WQXR in New York, she said:

"I would like to be the chronicler of something that I think is going down the drain very swiftly. And that is small-town, middle-class Southern life. There is something universal in it. ... There's something to lament when it goes, in its passing. In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama."

Even without a second novel, Lee's fans would say she succeeded.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Harper Lee's "Go Set A Watchman" is one of the most anticipated books of the year. It'll be released on Tuesday, but the first chapter was published today by some newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. And we're going to be hearing a little bit of Lee's writing in a moment. The book actually was written in the late 1950s before Lee's classic, "To Kill A Mockingbird," was published. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the author was living in New York City when she wrote both stories, struggling to get her career off the ground.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The new book features some of the same characters as "To Kill A Mockingbird," but it's set many years later. Scout, now grown up and known as Jean Louise Finch, is taking the train from New York City back to her hometown in Alabama.

MELISSA GRAY, BYLINE: (Reading) Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia's hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it, tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards. And in the yards, the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires.

ROSE: It's a train ride Harper Lee would know well. She split her time between New York and Monroeville, Ala., until moving back home for good in 2007. And like the character of Jean Louise Finch, Lee doesn't like to fly. She moved to New York in 1948.

CHARLES SHIELDS: Harper Lee came to New York leave believing that it was the literary capital of the world and that's where she belonged as a young wannabe writer.

ROSE: Charles Shields wrote a biography of Harper Lee called "Mockingbird." Shields says success did not come easily.

SHIELDS: She got a job as an airline reservationist at Eastern Airlines, and she wrote at night and on the weekends while working as reservationist for about eight years.

ROSE: Lee's fortunes began to improve at the end of 1956. Her friends Michael and Joy Williams Brown gave Nell, as those close to Harper Lee call her, a generous Christmas gift. Here's Joy Williams Brown in the documentary, "Hey, Boo."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HEY, BOO")

JOY WILLIAMS BROWN: I thought, here we have a tiny chunk of money. Why don't we see if Nell could take some time off?

ROSE: The Browns gave Harper Lee enough money to spend a year writing. That's when she completed the manuscript for "Go Set A Watchman." The novel helped her find an agent, who got Lee signed to the publisher Lippincott. But "Go Set A Watchman" was never released. Instead, Lee's editor urged her to expand on the flashback passages set during Scout's childhood. Lee spent more than two years writing and rewriting the novel that became known as "To Kill A Mockingbird."

SEAN QUIMBY: This is the note card where you clearly see "Go Set A Watchman" crossed out and "To Kill A Mockingbird" written over it.

ROSE: Sean Quimby directs the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, which houses the papers of Harper Lee's first literary agent, Annie Laurie Williams. Biographer Charles Shields says Williams' notes indicate that she thought of "Watchman" as just an early draft of "To Kill A Mockingbird." Otherwise, says Shields, why not just publish "Watchman" as a follow-up to the phenomenally successful "Mockingbird"?

SHIELDS: If "Go Set A Watchman" was already in the can, that could've come out almost immediately. But instead, it wasn't brought to market, so it apparently wasn't a contender.

JONATHAN BURNHAM: The notion that "Go Set A Watchman" is and early draft of "Mockingbird," I think we can discount.

ROSE: Jonathan Burnham is the publisher of Harper, which is releasing "Go Set A Watchman." He argues it's an entirely separate book that stands on its own.

BURNHAM: It's a book written by a young woman, set in her own times, quite unlike "To Kill A Mockingbird," which casts itself back. And it's a novel, as people will discover, that addresses the political issues of the 1950s head on.

ROSE: Burnham says the publisher is releasing the novel largely unedited, in accordance with Harper Lee's wishes. Why she never wanted to release it until now remains a mystery, and 89-year-old Harper Lee isn't talking. She gave her last full interview more than 50 years ago to radio station WQXR in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARPER LEE: I would like to be the chronicler of something that I think is going down the drain very swiftly, and that is small-town, middle-class, Southern life. There is something universal in it. There's something to lament when it goes in its passing. In other words, all I want to be as is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.

ROSE: Harper Lee's fans would say she succeeded even without a second novel. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.