Is Questioning Harper Lee’s Authorship Sexist?

TKaMB_cold metal and soft pages_misfortuneofknowing blog “Why is it only women who are ever accused of not writing their own books?”

Recently, Glynnis MacNicol asked this question in The Guardian, claiming only women like Harper Lee are accused of perpetrating such lies while simultaneously contradicting herself by admitting that President Obama has been on the receiving end of similar accusations.

As commenters were quick to point out, MacNicol forgot that the President isn’t the only male victim of such attacks. For example, one person (anavidreader) said:

“Point taken obviously. It is profoundly idiotic and speaks to an anxiety about women with authority…That said, *cough* Shakespeare *cough*”

Setting this omission aside, though, MacNicol raises an important issue. Women’s contributions are undervalued in many fields.

We have a pervasive cultural norm that sees women as lacking the intelligence, motivation, and ability to compete with men successfully.

So, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if female authors are more likely than male authors to be the recipients of criticisms surrounding the authenticity of their work.

In Harper Lee’s case, rumors have swirled for years that others, like Truman Capote, were actually behind her book.

I have never thought someone else was the principal author of To Kill a Mockingbird. However, what I’ve read about the difference between the earlier draft, Go Set a Watchman, and the final product has made me think more about the extent to which heavy editing impacts the authorship of a novel. (See here for a profile of Lee’s editor, Therese von Hohoff Torrey).***

As I wrote in “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch and Harper Lee:

If Watchman is Lee’s original version of what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m left asking the same question Michiko Kakutani raised in the New York Times review: “How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father?”

To what extent is Mockingbird the product of New York City rather than Monroeville, Alabama?

I’ve always known that Mockingbird was a heavily revised manuscript, but I’ve never known how much of Lee and her hometown remained in the final result. Now, I don’t want to find out.

Remember those people in college who submitted drafts of their papers to their teaching assistant enough times that, after the TA’s comments were incorporated, the TA had effectively written the paper by the end of the process?****

Well, as annoying as I thought those classmates were, I’d still consider them the primary authors of those papers. Their role was instrumental in producing the final product, and I believe the same is true of Harper Lee, even if we assume that New York City editors had a heavy influence on the town in Alabama we see in To Kill a Mockingbird. What masterpiece doesn’t go through many rounds of revision? What masterpiece is really the result of only one influence?

The same would be true of books by men, especially those published at a time when agents and editors didn’t simply throw promising, but imperfect, manuscripts into the trash.

New “stylometric” research seems to support Harper Lee’s claim to authorship. Without getting into the math, two professors in Poland used statistics to compare the 100-650 most frequently used words in Watchman and Mockingbird with each other and with works from several Southern authors, including Capote, Faulkner, and Welty.

The most basic form of that analysis showed that Watchman and Mockingbird were more closely related to each other than to any of the other books compared. The more interesting part to me, however, is the second analysis performed by the professors that still showed Watchman and Mockingbird to be related, but showed a rather large difference between their styles — a much larger difference than that seen between, say, any of Eudora Welty’s books included in the analysis, or any of Faulkner’s books after 1930.

The professors themselves recognized “a more heterogeneous pattern” for Mockingbird than Watchman, in that the latter shared similarities largely with Capote (with a modest similarity to Faulkner), whereas the former had more balanced similarities to Capote, Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor. To me, that transformation indicates the work of a skilled and learned editor.

Maybe we never needed research to tell us Lee is the author of both Watchman and Mockingbird. That’s what MacNicol seems to be saying when she labels questions about Lee’s authorship as “sexist.”

Lee’s gender likely plays a role in these beliefs, but so do the mysteries surrounding her, from her reclusive behavior and dearth of additional publications to the differences between Watchman and the classic coming-of-age story it became. For these reasons, questions about Mockingbird might be more reasonable than they otherwise appear.


*The image: My copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s one of my favorite novels.

**Of course, examples of the discrepancy between the treatment of women and men are too numerous to recount here (but please feel free to leave additional examples in the comments!).

***Thank you to Vickie Lester of Beguiling Hollywood for sending me the article about Lee’s editor!

****That wasn’t you in college, right? 😉

14 thoughts on “Is Questioning Harper Lee’s Authorship Sexist?

  1. With all the fuss and publicity I probably ought to read both books to get up to speed 🙂 AMB do you concur with MacNichol’s wider point i.e. that women are overlooked for citations, awards etc. or is she being selective?

    1. Yes, I agree with MacNicol’s wider point. I think it’s very likely that women are overlooked for citations, awards, and other forms of recognition. However, I don’t want to assume that sexism is the only reason for the questions surrounding Harper Lee. There are many reasons why the public wonders about the development of To Kill a Mockingbird. I believe she wrote it, but if there’s a third book published in the future (as her lawyer, Tonja Carter, has suggested might happen), there’s no way she’s the author of that one.

  2. An editor friend of mine says there is remarkable difference in language, I still haven’t got the time to read it but I’ve heard the same from a few professors of mine. They too seem to think there is something that we do not know.

    1. It’s interesting to hear how the language differs in Watchman and Mockingbird. The study I mentioned in the post indicates that the two books are related but different in style. There are just so many questions about Harper Lee, what Watchman is (an early draft or the sequel it was marketed to be), and whether Lee actually consented to its publication.

  3. What an interesting post! I think instead of publishing GSAW as its own work, I would have loved to see some sort of anniversary edition that included TKAM, GSAW, and some of the drafts between the two with notes from the editor. The journey from draft to final product is so fascinating!

    1. An anniversary edition with information about how Watchman became Mockingbird would have been a much better idea! HarperCollins should hire you immediately! I really think a great deal of the controversy around the so-called sequel stems from the deceptive marketing. Of course, controversy sells books. So, I can see why deception was the plan.

  4. I am surprised to read of the heavy editing. I often wondered on that. As an artist, I would find that hard to take, even if the editing made the book a classic. I would feel like it was no longer “my” book. I am glad I paint rather than write. Architecture can have heavy “editing” too where a building loses it essence of design. That usually is a result of budgetary constraints though.

    1. I would also question whether I’m still the author after someone else re-directs my work. Most books are collaborations, though (author, beta-readers, editors, etc).

  5. Not closely related but alluring comparison came to mind in my own field of work. Even though particular code could be used, enhanced and made more efficient doesn’t mean that original code/logic has been designed by the editor. I am not sure how severe allegations and their repercussions are but you raise one very fitting comparison in terms of papers submission during collage days. Nice post.

  6. I didn’t know anyone was questioning her authorship, so I appreciate hearing it. And the unauthorized biography of Lee (forget the author, sorry) says that she sent Watchman to a publisher and it was sent back. Her agent was aware of all this. So maybe she just lost the editor that helped her polish Mockingbird. In which case, it’s a real tragedy that the current lawyer has shown so little respect for honesty that we’re all questioning anything she does and every new “discovery” she makes.

  7. If someone were to compare my early writing with what I produce today, they’d notice differences primarily centering on mistakes normally edited out. For example, back then I made the same errors all beginning writers make (eyes and hands that move on their own, repetition, awkward phrasing, etc.), whereas now I’ve learned to avoid them. However, the styles would be similar. I’ve read some of my early stuff; it’s pretty much the same way I currently write. The “voices” are the same.

    I have no plans to read Lee’s newest release, but I wonder if the voice in Watchman is the same as that in Mockingbird. Thanks for an interesting, thought-provoking post!

  8. I think it’s worth bearing in mind the profound effect editor Maxwell Perkins had on the classic works of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, three very different writers, as well as his lesser known work on novels by Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Alan Paton, James Jones, and Ring Lardner. An editor can have a major effect on the final version of a book, but the voice, style, and majority of the content should remain that of the author, as is clearly the case with Harper Lee.

    1. Those are great examples. Thanks for bringing them up. I agree that “an editor can have a major effect on the final version of a book, but the voice, style, and majority of the content should remain that of the author.” It definitely seems like that’s the case with Harper Lee.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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