Harper Lee's original version of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' was rejected -- here's how the classic novel came to be

To kill a mockingbird gregory peckUniversalThe movie adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ with Gregory Peck.

Very few Americans, young or old, haven’t been affected by “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a literary classic widely read in schools and later in life.

But as the world mourns Harper Lee’s death this week, one fact of the 1960 novel’s publication remains little-known.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” when it was first submitted to its publisher, wasn’t like the “To Kill a Mockingbird” we know at all.

It had a different title, “Go Set a Watchman,” a version of which was published just last year by HarperCollins after an apparent discovery of a manuscript.

As the New York Times has reported, Lee and her agents sent a draft of “Watchman” to publishers in 1957, and J. B. Lippincott and Company bought it for $1,000.

But the editor who worked with Lee, Therese von Hohoff Torrey, didn’t want the draft Lee submitted. “Watchman” (both the initial draft and the one published recently) followed the same characters as “Mockingbird,” in Maycomb, Alabama, but 20 years later, at which point Scout is an adult and, as it turns out, Atticus Finch has become a bigot.

The editor saw promise but described this draft as “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” So she suggested to Lee that she set the book much earlier, in Scout’s childhood. The rewriting process took two years.

Here’s how the Times describes it:

The notecard system Ms. Williams used to track individual works bolsters the view that, at the time, Ms. Williams viewed “Watchman” as a first draft. She did not, for example, create two cards for two books, just one that tracks the evolution of “Watchman” into “Mockingbird.” At the top of the card, the original title is crossed out to make room for the new one.

In 1959, when the rewritten novel passed muster, Ms. Lee expressed her relief in a letter to Ms. Williams. “I was plain afraid for you to read it and go through the bitter disappointment of two years wasted effort a’borning a writer,” she wrote.

The next year, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published and became an instant best seller.

You can see the notecard from Lee’s agent, dated 1957, crossing out “Go Set a Watchman” and replacing it with “To Kill a Mockingbird” below:

Reporting also shows that, following the release of “Mockingbird,” when anticipation grew for another book from Harper Lee (which never came), she and the publisher did not consider “Watchman” a viable contender — though, of course, now it has reached the public’s hands.

Curious circumstances, however, surround “Watchman’s” release, with some evidence suggesting Lee may never have wanted the book published at all.

If it hadn’t been for the editor’s coaching, “To Kill a Mockingbird” likely wouldn’t exist, and we wouldn’t know Lee as the literary superstar she is.

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