I have to admit, the news of a new (old) Harper Lee novel sent me into a heavenly place. How wonderful is this, I thought. Then I had a second, third, and even fourth think, and I'm getting goosebumps. Not the good kind. The creepy kind.
So I pulled out the copy I own of Shields' unauthorized biography of Ms. Lee, titled MOCKINGBIRD. It's well written and feels very grounded, and I haven't read it in a while. So I looked up the pages about Mockingbird's evolution, and what I read reinforced the icky goosebumps.
Go Set the Watchman was a first draft, all right. The agent Maurice Cairn and his wife, Annie Laurie Williams, who agented film rights, saw it as a great start, but anecdotal with no story arc. It needed rewriting, so Ms. Lee rewrote and rewrote, for two and a half years. She produced the best book she could, and it was To Kill a Mockingbird. I'd been wondering at this news of a "newly discovered" manuscript, when it was clear the agents and Lippincott's editor, Tay Hophof (? I'm sure I've misspelled the editor's name) knew and had read Watchman. Why hadn't they published it after Mockingbird, especially since they were dying for a follow-up novel?
I'll tell you why. First drafts are usually so ugly only their mothers can love them. Then they go through growing pangs and the awkward phase, until they mature enough to be shown to the world. I have first drafts hidden in the attic that I should take out and burn. My bet is, Watchman is that first draft that was filled with passion but plot problems. We've all been there.
Anything by Nelle Harper Lee is worth its weight in gold. I get that. But after years of refusing to put out another book, I can't help but wonder what changed Ms. Lee's mind.
I can only come to ugly conclusions, none of which taint Ms. Lee, but only those she has trusted. I would hate to learn who it is, singular or plural, because the wrath of the reading public can be vicious. If only it doesn't taint Ms. Lee's literary heritage and well deserved stature as a great writer and social conscience.
I pray that is so.