Today, The New York Times announced the July publication of a second novel by Harper Lee, age 88. The story goes that Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman but shelved it when an editor suggested she rewrite it from the point of view of a young Scout Finch. That rewrite, of course, became the wildly bestselling To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel most of us read at some point in our middle- or high school years, one that was made into a 1962 film starring Gregory Peck, one that published in 1960 and continues to sell more than a million copies a year.
Last summer, apparently, Lee’s lawyer discovered the manuscript among the octogenarian’s archives. Some on Twitter are having a field day with the news. @HalimahMarcus suggested the novel may have been hidden in a “hollowed out tree.” @DarinStrauss tweeted, “They say it’s hardest to get your second book published, so I’m just glad someone’s taking a chance on her.”
As the day wore on, and the news spread, some started questioning things. Did Lee willingly consent to publication of Go Set a Watchman? She is, after all, in questionable health after suffering a stroke in 2007.
But neither the new book nor the brouhaha is what interests me.
Like so many, I love Lee’s first and only published book, To Kill A Mockingbird, and will definitely pre-order Go Set a Watchman—but for different reasons, perhaps, than most. From a writerly perspective, I like the idea of a peek into an esteemed author’s rewrite process. Oh, the things I could learn.
But here’s what really thrills me: A nearly 60-year-old manuscript of Harper Lee’s has been discovered after it was long thought lost.
Late last year, in France, a first edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays was discovered in a library. It was printed in 1623. That’s 392 years ago.
As many of you may know, I am researching Mark Twain’s visit to Hawaii in 1866. Note: That’s one year shy of 150 years ago.
While Twain was here, he took detailed notes. He carried a small, leather notebook with him—possibly in the pocket of the linen duster he was notorious for wearing around the Islands, maybe alongside the cigars he toted, too. Twain was known to jump from notebook to notebook and, even, misplace them.
There were at least three of these notebooks. Two of them reside at the Mark Twain Papers & Project in Berkeley, California. A third went missing some time after Twain returned to San Francisco.
After years of research, I suspect there was a fourth notebook, as well, one that never made it back to San Francisco with the others, and I’m on a mission to find it.
The one I held in my hands at the Mark Twain Project looks like this. It measures 6-13/16 by four inches. I suspect the missing one would look just like it. It may or may not have his name in it and, hence, gotten tossed in a box with other miscellany historical documents.
So, here’s the thing: if you live in Hawaii and you come across a small, leather notebook like this, please let me know. If you have a box or two in the depths of some storage facility or carport or hollowed out tree that you’d like me to sift through, I’d be happy to play the historical sleuth.
Because if a first folio of Shakespeare’s and a lost manuscript of Harper Lee’s can turn up, why not something of Mark Twain’s?