Harper Lee’s 1956 Christmas

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It was on this day in 1956 that novelist Harper Lee spent Christmas in New York City with friends, and received a gift that changed her life. In 1949, Lee had dropped out of a law program at the University of Alabama and moved to New York City, the home of her childhood friend Truman Capote. Capote had just published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) – which featured a character based on Lee, and he was a literary star. In New York, Lee found a job as a ticket agent at an airline. For seven years, she wrote on the weekends, but she never published anything.

She rarely got time off from work, so she wasn’t able to get home to Alabama for Christmas. That Christmas of 1956, she was homesick. Lee wrote: “What I really missed was a memory, an old memory of people long since gone, of my grandparents’ house bursting with cousins, smilax, and holly. I missed the sound of hunting boots, the sudden open-door gusts of chilly air that cut through the aroma of pine needles and oyster dressing. I missed my brother’s night-before-Christmas mask of rectitude and my father’s bumblebee bass humming ‘Joy to the World.'”

Lee spent that Christmas, like many others, with her closest friends in the city: a couple named Michael and Joy Brown, whom she had met through Capote, and their two sons. Michael Brown was paid by companies to write promotional “industrial musicals,” like “Wonderful World of Chemistry” for DuPont, which was performed 17,000 times. In the fall of 1956, he had written a successful industrial show for Esquire magazine, and he was feeling rich.

Lee and the Browns had a tradition of trying to exchange the best Christmas gifts for the least amount of money, and that year Lee’s present for Michael Brown was a portrait of an 18th-century Anglican writer and cleric. It cost her 35 cents. Lee couldn’t hide her disappointment when everyone had opened their gifts and there were none for her. The Browns told her to look in the tree, where she found an envelope addressed to her. Inside, it said: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

Lee thought it was a joke, and when she finally realized that it wasn’t, she protested, but the Browns insisted – they were feeling financially comfortable, and they thought she was talented and deserved a chance to write full-time. When she said that it was too big of a risk for them, Michael replied: “No, honey. It’s not a risk. It’s a sure thing.” She wrote: “I went to the window, stunned by the day’s miracle. Christmas trees blurred softly across the street, and firelight made the children’s shadows dance on the wall beside me. A full, fair chance for a new life. Not given me by an act of generosity, but by an act of love. Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.”

She went to work immediately, and just three weeks later she brought 49 pages of a new novel called Go Set a Watchman to an agent. By the end of February, she had finished the draft. Her agents suggested some edits, and by October of 1957 the manuscript was sent off to a publishing company without a title. The publishers liked it but thought it needed major revisions – most significantly, they thought that Lee should focus on the childhood, not the adulthood, of the novel’s narrator, Scout Finch. Lee spent two years reworking the novel, and came up with a new title: To Kill A Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) went on to sell more than 30 million copies and become one of the most beloved books in American literature.

Lee didn’t release another book until earlier this year, when Go Set a Watchman (2015) was published. The book has caused a huge controversy, with some people claiming that Go Set a Watchman is an important newly discovered novel, and others criticizing it as a mediocre first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that should never have been published.

-The Writer’s Almanac, Dec 25, 2015

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