If you’re fascinated by the “new” Harper Lee novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” you absolutely MUST read this account (and comments) from a publishing-house employee who was there at the time the manuscript was submitted.
We alert you to the blog of most boss Clarissa W. Atkinson, former associate dean of Harvard Divinity School. She was, in her foolish youth (don’t sue us, Ms. Atkinson!) a lowly peon at J.B. Lippincott, the publishing house that gave the world “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
She worked for Tay Hohoff, editor of the book. Hohoff was, by all accounts, fabulous.
She had a smoky voice, maybe not quite Tallulah Bankhead, Atkinson tells us, but heck, at least Lauren Bacall. She probably had three-martini lunches! (We don’t know that for a true fact, but lighten up — how great does one woman have to be?) Hohoff was in her 60s back then, a pro, editing this huge glop of material by an ingenue from Alabama, who showed up with a “big, messy manuscript.” This was first titled, “Go Set a Watchman.”
“She was great. She was impressive,” says Atkinson, in a telephone interview.
Atkinson should know. She remembers working at Lippincott from 1955-1959, the formative years of “Mockingbird.” The manuscript was nobody’s darling.
As she writes:
My tenure at Lippincott coincided with a few of the many years during which Harper Lee was working on To Kill a Mockingbird. According to office legend…Lee had arrived from Alabama with a trunk full of mixed-up parts and pages of an enormous manuscript, she lived in a garret on macaroni while she transformed the pages into a stunningly successful book, and this was accomplished through the faithful support and encouragement of her Lippincott editor.
Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, was a substantial presence in the office – a small woman with a deep voice and a lot of silver hair. She and Miss Lucy Tompkins and my new boss, Eunice Blake, were the first women I actually knew (as opposed to actresses and people like that) who kept their original names after they married. They were fierce about it, too. When I got married after three years at Lippincott, Miss Hohoff let me know how much she disapproved of my changing my name. I was polite, of course, but I thought she was nuts.
“Miss Lucy Tompkins”! “Eunice”! Shut UP!!!
After Atkinson posted the item recently, it drew a comment from Fernanda Perrone, who says her mom, Marguerite Ridge Perrone, was one of the first readers of the “Watchman” manuscript Lee submitted.
“She had been working in publishing for about six or seven years when she was asked to be a “first reader” of Harper Lee’s manuscript,” Fernanda Perrone wrote to Atkinson. Perrone added:
She later told the story on herself as not being able to recognize what became one of the important novels of the twentieth century. My mother said the manuscript was very long (did it arrive in a paper bag, a suitcase?), and seemed to cover Harper’s Lee’s whole life…my mother said that Tay Hohoff radically edited the manuscript, eliminating much extraneous material to make it a manageable length. She always felt that Miss Hohoff should have gotten a writing credit! I’m pretty sure that what my mother read included components of what became “Go Set a Watchman.”
Women editing women for million-dollar stakes in the 1950s! Who knew?