The day the news broke of the forthcoming publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I made a note to mention it to my grandmother, with whom I’m in the habit of discussing literary affairs. I was expecting some talk of how she remembered the civil-rights movement, of Southern fiction, and of other authors who’d played Rip Van Winkle. But her response this time included a surprise.
Harper Lee, she said, had shared not only a publisher but a literary agent with my grandfather, Bonner McMillion, a newspaperman and novelist of some modest success in the 1950s and 1960s. I had never before known of Bonner’s connection to Lee (such as it was) because it had never occurred to me that there had been any practicalities to his career: Though not of lasting national note, to me my grandfather’s work had mythic significance. Over the next few weeks I interrogated my grandmother, Virginia, once a reporter herself and still undiminished in mind at 93, about the agent in question, Maurice Crain—who had apparently once mentioned a story of Lee’s that he’d suggested she expand into a novel.
Finally I thought to ask where this conversation had taken place. Probably, she said, via their correspondence, which Bonner had kept, meticulously organized, in his filing cabinet. Sure enough, wedged between old phone bills, I found a folder with sixteen years of Crain’s letters, neatly bound and ordered from their start in the early fifties. The sheets let off the gentle musk of period hardcovers, and were still dimpled, like braille, from the imprint of typewriter keys long ago. Most simply involve the rote business matters of writer and agent. But scattered in between is a wealth of information about the publishing industry of fifty years ago, its economics, its major players, its literary trends, and the famous acquaintances of Crain’s, whose mention he saw fit to sprinkle in at opportune moments.