To Kill a Mockingbird

Biographical background and publication

Born in 1926, Harper Lee grew up in the Southern town of Monroeville, Alabama, where she became close friends with soon-to-be famous writer Truman Capote. She attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery (1944–45), and then studied law at the University of Alabama (1945–49). While attending college, she wrote for campus literary magazines: Huntress at Huntingdon and the humor magazine Rammer Jammer at the University of Alabama. At both colleges, she wrote short stories and other works about racial injustice, a rarely mentioned topic on such campuses at the time.[4] In 1950, Lee moved to New York City, where she worked as a reservation clerk for British Overseas Airways Corporation; there, she began writing a collection of essays and short stories about people in Monroeville. Hoping to be published, Lee presented her writing in 1957 to a literary agent recommended by Capote. An editor at J. B. Lippincott , who bought the manuscript, advised her to quit the airline and concentrate on writing. Donations from friends allowed her to write uninterrupted for a year.[5]

After finishing the first draft and returning it to Lippincott, the manuscript, at that point titled "Go Set a Watchman",[6] fell into the hands of Therese von Hohoff Torrey — known professionally as Tay Hohoff — a small, wiry veteran editor in her late 50s. Ms. Hohoff was impressed. “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott.[7] But as Ms. Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” During the next couple of years, she led Ms. Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled “To Kill a Mockingbird.”[8]

Ms. Lee had lost her mother, who suffered from mental illness, six years before she met Ms. Hohoff at Lippincott’s offices. (Her father, a lawyer on whom Atticus was modeled, would die two years after the publication of “Mockingbird.”) Like many unpublished authors, Ms. Lee was unsure of her talents. “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,”[9] Ms. Lee said in a statement released by her lawyer. Ms. Hohoff offers a more detailed characterization of the process in the Lippincott corporate history: “After a couple of false starts, the story-line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision — there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision of it — the true stature of the novel became evident.” (In 1978, Lippincott was acquired by Harper & Row, which became HarperCollins, publisher of “Watchman.”)[10]

There appeared to be a natural give and take between author and editor. “When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours,” Ms. Hohoff wrote. “And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country.”[11]

Raised in a multigenerational Quaker home near Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Ms. Hohoff attended a Quaker school, Brooklyn Friends. Such an upbringing suggests certain progressive values. But probably the clearest window into her state of mind when she was coaching Ms. Lee through the rewrite of “Mockingbird” is the book she was writing herself at the time: a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott, a social activist and humanist in early-20th-century New York who had committed his life to helping the city’s underclass. The book, “A Ministry to Man,” was published in 1959, a year before “Mockingbird.”[12]

As for her relationship with Ms. Lee, it’s clear that Ms. Hohoff provided more than just editorial guidance. One winter night, as Charles J. Shields recounts in “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” Ms. Lee threw her manuscript out her window and into the snow, before calling Ms. Hohoff in tears. “Tay told her to march outside immediately and pick up the pages,” Mr. Shields writes.[13]

Ultimately, Lee spent over two and a half years writing To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was published on July 11, 1960. After rejecting the "Watchman" title, it was initially re-titled Atticus, but Lee renamed it "To Kill a Mockingbird" to reflect that the story went beyond just a character portrait.[14] The editorial team at Lippincott warned Lee that she would probably sell only several thousand copies.[15] In 1964, Lee recalled her hopes for the book when she said, "I never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird.' ... I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."[16] Instead of a "quick and merciful death", Reader's Digest Condensed Books chose the book for reprinting in part, which gave it a wide readership immediately.[17] Since the original publication, the book has never been out of print.

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