An Author’s Journey

In Memoriam: Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926–Feb. 19, 2016)

In May 1957, a 31-year-old woman entered the New York City offices of publisher J. B. Lippincott, and said to the receptionist, “Good mornin’. I’m Nelle Harper Lee. I’m here for my appointment.”

“Good morning, Miss Lee. The editors are waiting for you.”

Thus started Nelle’s journey as an author. When she entered the conference room, she faced several male editors and one woman. The woman’s name was Theresa von Hohoff, but she preferred to be called Tay Hohoff. Nelle was told that the manuscript her agent had sent them, Go Set a Watchman but retitled Atticus, was “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel,” but since they did like her writing style, they assigned Tay to work with Nelle.

Over the next three years, Nelle’s journey, working hand-in-hand with Tay, led to the 1960 publication of one of the most popular and respected books of our time, To Kill a Mockingbird. There are no detailed written records of the work between the two, but by all accounts, they created an enduring work of fiction .

Generations have elevated Atticus Finch to folk-hero status, aided by Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the 1962 movie. Parents named their sons “Atticus”; young people were so taken with the character that they chose to pursue a legal career; author Ron Hansen titled his book Atticus in the fictional lawyer’s honor; and now a stage play is destined for Broadway produced by Scott Rudin and written by Aaron Sorkin.

Nelle Harper Lee, your author’s journey is done. Rest peacefully and enjoy the company of Atticus, Scout, Jem, Calpurnia, Tom, Dill, Boo, and even Bob and Mayella. We are forever indebted to you for your wonderful characters, who instilled in my generation a higher sense of morality and understanding as the difficult years of the Civil Rights revolution unfolded. And future generations continue to learn the same lessons as well.

Waights Taylor Jr. lives in Santa Rosa, and is originally from Birmingham, Ala. He is the author of the award-winning ‘Our Southern Home: Scottsboro to Montgomery to Birmingham.’

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