Harper Lee and Tay Hohoff: Discovering How 'Go Set a Watchman' Became 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

July 18, 2015

Midnight on July 14th found me firing up my Kindle and beginning a long-anticipated literary road trip.  As I traveled down the Go Set a Watchman highway (or perhaps I should say "train tracks"), I purposely avoided reading early reviews of the book. I wanted to experience all the scenery going by for myself and come up with my own opinion about the novel.

 

As the going got rougher, I pushed on, not wanting to give up. I finally came to a looming roadblock and had to find the nearest exit. Regretful but relieved, I sat back and tried to figure out what had just happened.

 

The plot itself had a genius to it. For the first draft of her book, recently published as Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee wrote about a young woman returning to her childhood home in Alabama. Jean Louise "Scout" Finch discovers an unexpected and shocking change awaiting her. It is also shocking to readers of To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel that eventually emerged from the first draft and was published in 1960.

 

In Go Set a Watchman, the ideals of racial equality grate against the entrenched attitudes of the past. Focusing on the theater of one family, these attitudes--new and old, justice verses prejudice--play out. Overall, I thought the novel seemed to be asking the question: what do we owe family members, especially beloved ones, when we disagree with them on fundamental issues? 

 

It sounds like a very interesting and challenging plot. Yet, I could not continue. To avoid spoilers, I'll skip going into detail. I'll just say that at 2:00 a.m. on July 14th, I could no longer abide the stunning changes found in the newly published book. I hit the delete button on my Kindle and sent Go Set a Watchman into the "clouds." As I watched it disappear from the e-reader screen, I had a burning question on my mind: how did Go Set a Watchman become To Kill a Mockingbird?

 

I set out on another journey, but on the backroads of literary history this time. I found some intriguing answers, all centering around a brilliant writer, Harper Lee, and an extraordinary editor named Therese Von Hohoff Torrey:

 

  • Answer #1: It's surprising at first glance for an editor to oversee this change in a manuscript written for adults:

First Draft: A woman in her 20s navigates family conflicts and a romance bristling with tension and mixed emotions.

 

The Published Version of 1960: A first-person account of small-town life as seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old.

 

The "first draft" version seems much more marketable. Harper Lee's editor, known professionally as Tay Hohoff, noticed how the childhood flashback scenes in the manuscript came to vivid life. She saw the potential and helped change the literary landscape.

I find that the story is stronger and more poignant as seen through the eyes of a child. Scout Finch is looking up at a confusing and frightening world, and we try to make sense of it with her.

 

It took over two years to fashion To Kill a Mockingbird from Go Set a Watchman. The result won the Pulitzer Prize and became an award-winning film soon after.

 

Just who was Tay Hohoff, the editor who helped make this happen?

 

  • Answer #2: Tay Hohoff was in her 50s when she became Harper Lee's editor. She brought a keen, firm but sympathetic eye to the manuscripts accepted by her employer, J. B. Lippincott Company. 

 

Another author, Eugenia Price, turned to Tay Hohoff for editorial help when she began her classic historical fiction, the St. Simons Trilogy.

 

In St. Simons Memoir, she wrote: We'd met someone who knew her profession through and through, whose long years of experience and evident skills (demonstrated surely in the books she had edited) could mean a turning point in my writing career.

 

Tay Hohoff herself wrote about how she approached the editorial process with Harper Lee: “When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours. 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.”

 

  • (Possible) Answer #3: Jonathan Mahler, in his recent article, offers a fascinating connection between Tay Hohoff and the character of Atticus Finch in both books. He writes: ...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... The book, “A Ministry to Man,” was published in 1959, a year before “Mockingbird."

John Lovejoy Elliott (1868-1942) embraced the Ethical Culture movement, based "on the idea that honoring and living in accordance with ethical principles is central to what it takes to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, and to creating a world that is good for all.*

 

Does this sound like someone we know from To Kill a Mockingbird?

 

In addition, Elliott's ancestor, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, was a minister and abolitionist. He stood up for his beliefs and was murdered for them in 1837.

 

Did Tay Hohoff's research into the life of John Lovejoy Elliott influence the character of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird? Although we'll never know all the ins and outs of the editorial process, it provides a very interesting stop on the byways of literary history.

 

Tay Hohoff, the editor, went on to become senior vice-president of J. B. Lippincott Company. By the time of her retirement, she had helped many authors bring out the best in their books. She died in 1974 at the age of 75, leaving a legacy few can match in her editorial contributions to literature.

 

Harper Lee, now 89, will always be a towering name in the history of stories.  Facts often fail to touch the heart. A story can reach past entrenched attitudes and lead to change, both political and moral. That is Harper Lee's contribution to literature and to the world.

 

A personal note: To my surprise, I recognized Tay Hohoff's name this week, and not just from reading about her as editor of To Kill a Mockingbird. As a teenager, I had read her book, Cats and Other People. I remember it as a warm and charming book about the cats she had treasured throughout her life (yes, I loved books like that even as a teen). 

 

If you would like to remember the characters as they are portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird, you may find my earlier blog refreshing:

 

'To Kill a Mockingbird' and the Art of Being a Father: The Book, the Movie and Real Life.

 

*The Social Welfare History Project: Elliott, John Lovejoy. Accessed 7/16/2015.

 

 

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