In the south I know, everybody has a say. You talk. I listen. I talk. You listen. And so on until all are heard. Never mind that we don’t agree. Or that what we have to say is just another version of what has already been said. We still listen. Now I’d like my say.
The staggering news of Harper Lee’s second book was hinted about by a scholar as early as the 1980s at a meeting of the Prattville Creative Writers. The content was not mentioned, although the certainty of its existence bespoke the confidence of one who could only have laid eyes on it. And, certainly nothing more about the manuscript was divulged, because if you were a confidante of Harper Lee’s and wanted to remain so, you respected her privacy. No questions asked. The recent announcement of the public debut date of Go Set a Watchman has unhinged every tongue of anybody who has ever read a book of any kind. This chatter about Watchman may come to rival our lifetime of ruminations on THE second coming.
Harper Lee and all things Mockingbird are being discussed by bunched up wads of readers and scholars and writers that have burgeoned this week. Lovers of books and reading will read and savor every word of the new book; writers and literary critics will scramble and skim for quotations to support sketchy comparisons of Watchman to her Mockingbird with either praise or condemnation.
Some are saying, “I told you so.” Those claim to knowing about Lee’s Mockingbird prequel or knowing some other little private parts of her life that the rest of us aren’t privy to: close friends of a very close friend of a friend.
Others still wonder. They want it to be so. But the what if’s present these niggling worries. So there is an existing manuscript—very easy to accept. But what if Lee hasn’t approved what is about to be published? Is this a first draft? Who helped her revise it? Will critics try to disclaim her primacy in the newly formed Alabama Literary Hall of Fame?
Ever since I heard that scholar say so in the 80s, I have always believed that Harper Lee had written more than had been published. And I believe it now more than ever. My own lowly files attest to it. They are spilling over into cardboard boxes with various versions of two novels in manuscript, two collections of short stories, and a hefty group of personal essays with at least 999 versions of each. It is unimaginable to think that any writer would cease the writing process totally after such a phenomenal success as Lee’s first novel. No. Never. Most writers I know write because they must. They must write just as they must eat, or breathe.
I’ve had the stellar experience of getting to know Harper Lee somewhat personally, if on a limited basis. Lee had heard about my son’s book, A Gift Before Dying, which follows the 1999-2000 University of Alabama basketball season and the death that year of one of the coaches. Lee asked my daughter-in-law about it. My son Stephen informed me that she is quite a sports fan.
My daughter-in-law called. “I’m giving Harper Lee one of Stephen’s books. Would you like for me to give her one of your chapbooks?”
After I’d temporarily stopped breathing, I answered, sputtering something like, “Would I? Yes, are you serious, of course I do. But what if she hates poetry, and how will I sign it or will it be too brazen to sign it at all?”
And that’s how Harper Lee came to read my first book of poetry, Searching for Ambergris. Some weeks later, my daughter-in-law called again.
“I received a note from Harper Lee.”
I had to think again how to breathe. This effusive note from “Nelle” praised both my son’s book and mine beyond anything we had heard or have heard since.
In October, 2002, I came face-to-face with this literary icon as I waited in a roomful of her admirers at a fund raiser at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham. She stopped to greet the guests at the full table next to me. My breath caught in my throat. She was about to pass me. I never guessed that I would be close enough to stand up for an eye-to-eye greeting, that she would look up into Wayne Greenhaw’s face and in loving schoolteacher fashion scold Wayne with her question,” Have you read this woman’s poetry?” and that we would fold into each other’s arms hugging. Of course, Wayne had never to my knowledge read a word of mine, but he nodded and smiled. What’s any man to do in the face of a question like that from Harper Lee?
“I wish I could sit down with you and talk,” she lamented, “but I have to speak to others.” She motioned to the crowded room of admirers as she floated on, away from what now almost seems a dream.
The sweetness of that encounter prompted my letter to the editor of the New Yorker after the 2006 Thomas Mallon review of the biography of Harper Lee that Charles Shields shapeshifted from what others had said about her. All riled up by the review, I mailed Lee a copy of my letter that was never published.
Lee responded in a note to my daughter-in-law, “I am grateful to her [Kathleen]—pure kindness prompted her to write it.”
Another serendipitous dream of mine would later unexpectedly merge with this one. I was entrusted with the remaining papers of my friend, the late and beloved Helen Norris, ten years older than Lee. Norris, handpicked by Hudson Strode to study in his writing classes at the University of Alabama, became the first person in the southeast to receive the MFA for a novel in lieu of a thesis. Last year after sorting and sifting through two twenty-pound boxes of the papers of Norris, which proved to be the cream that had risen to the top of a houseful of manuscripts she left behind, I wondered how Helen would have reacted if someone had suggested that one of her several unpublished novels be published. As wonderful as her manuscripts are, someone would still have to do a bit of editing for these manuscripts to be publishable. Who would do it? In Helen’s case I am bound and determined to be the one to zealously guard her voice because I know her work. But more than that, I know how strictly she herself guarded her own voice with editors. As an independent scholar and a member of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, I nominated Norris this past year to the first class of Alabama’s Literary Hall of Fame. On the evening of June 8, I stood ready to receive her award next to Cathy Randall who was accepting the medal for Harper Lee, a shoo-in from the start. I felt somewhat bedazzled standing on that stage in front of life-sized photographs of both Norris and Lee.
Working with Helen’s papers has taught me something simple and profound: writers, even the very best writers, do not leave perfect manuscripts lying about, waiting for someone to pick them up and publish them after they’re on a retirement farm or in the grave. Someone else has to make a difficult decision: publish the manuscript as it is without much editing and risk the wrath of those who don’t want to see the writer pitied/criticized for out and out errors; or not publish the manuscript and have it rot and crumble inside university archives with few eyes to witness beyond those of a curious scholar or two. To those eager to become critics of the still unpublished works of Norris, or Lee’s Watchman, use this rule of thumb: until you can tell a Post Oak from a Live Oak, don’t mess with our oaks. (An alternate version of the plank-in-your-own-eye parable.)
My two first edition, first printing copies of Watchman have arrived in the mail from a local bookseller—one for my son and his wife, and one for me. I fully expect to recognize the southern voices of our collective memories there, warts and all.
And I can’t wait. Thank you, Miss Nelle, for your gift to the world, to borrow a phrase.