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Thursday, 5 February 2015

A Lesson From Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee working as the editor of the Rammer Jammer magazine while at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1947.
It strikes me that there is a lesson to be learned from the finding of a 304-page unpublished typewritten Harper Lee manuscriptThe book, Go Set a Watchman, was written in the mid-1950s, before To Kill a Mockingbird, and submitted for publication in 1957. To Kill a Mockingbird was published on July 11, 1960.
Though this earlier manuscript is said to have been found, last northern fall, in what Lee now says was “a secure location”  - affixed to an original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird - one has to wonder what might have happened to it if, say, it had been written by a modern-day author using a computer.
What if the modern writer puts together a 304-page manuscript, gets discouraged about it by a publisher and writes a revised version, one which becomes a massive worldwide success (not to mention a great movie)? Would the first digitally written manuscript survive? (Lee, in fact, thought the typewritten Go Set a Watchman manuscript had been lost, until it was found late last year by attorney and friend Tonja Carter.)
This 1957 Lee typewritten manuscript has survived the best part of 60 years, precisely because of the machine upon which it was written. Of course, a present-day writer might retain a print-out of a first draft, or a copy of it on a disc, but there must also be a risk a rejected work, in digital form, would be deleted and lost forever. After all, as Lee herself said in a letter to Oprah Winfrey in 2006, she has maintained a lifetime dedication to the written word but people today prefer to have "minds like empty rooms". 
This photograph was taken on May 1, 1961, by Donald Uhrbrock for a LIFE magazine article on Harper Lee. The article appeared in the May 26 issue of LIFE and, according to the caption, the photo shows Lee sitting at a typewriter in her father's law office during a trip back to her home town of Monroeville, Alabama. It was in this office, according to LIFE, that To Kill a Mockingbird was written.
Lee with her father, Amasa Coleman "Coley" Lee, the model for Atticus Finch.
Go Set a Watchman is set two decades after To Kill a Mockingbird but in the same fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. It details what happens when To Kill a Mockingbird’s child narrator, Scout Finch, now an adult living in New York, returns to visit her father, Atticus. In its original form, Go Set a Watchman told the To Kill a Mockingbird story in flashbacks.
Lee's publisher Harper announced this week that two million copies of her second novel are scheduled for release on July 14, 55 years after the first. Lee turns 89 on April 28. She suffered a stroke in 2007.
To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and continues to sell at a rate of one million copies a year.
Lee at a typewriter at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1947. 
Nelle Harper Lee was born and raised in Monroeville, the daughter of a former newspaper editor and owner who practised law and served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926-38. Nelle was a close friend of schoolmate and neighbour Truman Capote. While enrolled at Monroe County High School, Lee developed an interest in English literature. After graduating from high school in 1944, she attended the then all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery for a year, then transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she studied law.
In 1949, Lee moved to New York City and took a job as an airline reservation agent, writing fiction in her spare time. She found an agent in November 1956 and eventually showed a manuscript to Tay Hohoff, an editor at J. B. Lippincott & Co - a string of stories more than the novel Lee had intended. Under Hohoff's guidance, 2 1/2 years of rewriting followed. The result was To Kill a Mockingbird, which in 1999 was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll by the Library Journal. Lee worked on a follow-up novel called The Long Goodbye but eventually filed it away unfinished.

5 comments:

Joe V said...

Great story, Robert. I was unaware of the backstory connecting Lee with Truman Capote, especially that it involves a typewriter.

writelephant.com said...

Nice post, Robert. I have several old scripts (not typed) but printed and stashed away in an old shoe-box -these and others are backed up on hard disk and several USB sticks, but I've digitally tampered with them so often I've literally "lost the plot". So while it's good to have both, I think paper copies of an "original draft" are a good idea. In my case, they might at least be useful to someone as scrap paper!!

Bill M said...

You've told me many things I had not known Robert. Very intersting story and background information.
Print will always out last digital. Digital gets stored and the format forgotten until it is remembered and the format no longer exists to restore the file.
Neat to know how a typewriter brought two famous people together.

Taylor Harbin said...

I'd love to see the original manuscript. It's the closest thing you can get to what the author was feeling at the time they wrote.

Richard P said...

You make a great point. I laugh when people refer to the durability of digital files as opposed to paper. They can be reproduced and transmitted quickly and accurately, but long-term storage is very dubious.