The Man Who Helped Make Harper Lee

Maurice Crain was a literary agent, a Southerner, and a personal friend to the reclusive author. And, as I learned from his letters to my grandfather, he was a champion for writers in the 1960s whose small-town settings were falling out of fashion.

Ari N. Schulman

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.

Bonner McMillion (Ari N. Schulman)

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.

One letter, from January 1962, even revealed details about the crafting of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and until this month, her only published book:

Most good books are ones that have been a long time maturing, with a lot of cutting and fitting and replanning done along the way. MOCKINGBIRD, for instance, was about the most replanned and rewritten book I ever had a hand in, and it turned out finally that all the labor on it was well justified, and if the Lippincott editors hadn’t been so fussy and painstaking we wouldn’t have had nearly so good a book.

Crain’s relationship with Lee has long been a subject of interest among those who research the reclusive author. In his 2006 biography of Lee, Charles J. Shields writes of a mentor relationship between the two that eventually grew into a deep friendship. Shields’s work, since expanded by the Washington Post’s investigative report on Watchman, shows that Lee and Crain’s working relationship began in late 1956, when she gave him five short stories. Crain found one, “Snow-on-the-Mountain,” promising, but returned the others, suggesting she consider writing a novel, which would be easier to sell. In January, Lee delivered an additional story and “the first fifty pages of a novel, Go Set a Watchman.”

The growing consensus has long been that Mockingbird was reworked from Watchman, and with reason. HarperCollins published Go Set a Watchman on July 14, and in February one of their representatives said, “there will not be any editing to the book, as it is not necessary.” (It remains unclear whether Lee’s editors at HarperCollins have had any direct contact with her since she suffered a stroke in 2007.) But as I learned through my grandfather’s correspondence with Crain, To Kill a Mockingbird was nevertheless the product of considerable encouragement, advice, and revision, much of it coming from a man who saw it as his mission to champion writers like Lee and Bonner, whose deceptively gentle small-town stories were rapidly falling out of fashion.

Ari N. Schulman

* * *

I recall my grandfather once expressing frustration at “spigot writers”—those who could just open the tap—even though he wrote one of his books in just three months, because, as he put it, “we were hungry.” But this was just part of the lore. As a kid in Houston, I’d had a friend whose grandfather had been to the moon (twice!), but I remained more in awe of the feats of my own. Writing novels was a great—and, at least for those already written, obviously preordained—business.

Here in his letters these feats are brought to earth, with all their struggles and contingencies—a career’s worth between two manila folds. Part of the charm in reading them stems from discovering how little the publishing biz has changed—push and tug, bitter pills of criticism delivered with sugar of flattery—as well as how readily the patter of 1950s speech smoothed these exchanges for two men who were far from rubes.

They bonded over their military service: Bonner had served as a cryptographer in North Africa, Crain as a gunner, and later a German prisoner of war. They came from similar backgrounds, too, as did Annie Laurie Williams, Crain’s wife, who partnered with him to handle movie and TV adaptations. All three were raised in Texas farming and ranching towns in the prosperous lull between the closing of the frontier and the Depression.

In the letters, Crain affects a certain air to which Southerners are prone, the more so around each other and in the presence of Northerners. He consoles Bonner for “slaving over a hot typewriter for less than peanuts.” He offers advice handed to him by “my Granddad, a field officer of some experience in Gen. Lee’s army.” He warns that a plotline involving an extramarital affair “never, never, never happens in the immaculate columns of a Curtis publication.” And, rejecting an early novel, Crain writes, “Remember the Holy Trinity of English I, Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis? Well, for the lack of the nail Unity, the horses Coherence and Emphasis both threw a shoe and limped home lame.”

Though Crain made his business in Midtown Manhattan, he of course refers to Northerner publishers as Yankees. The New Yorker and Harper’s are “lit’ry” mags—“pretentiously lit’ry.” Apologizing for what he considered an insulting price offered by Collier’s magazine to serialize Bonner’s first novel, Crain says, “we’ll take it out of their hides in the future.” Aiming to lower expectations for Bonner’s football novel, The Long Ride Home, Crain says that reviewers don’t like sports fiction because they’re “mama’s boys who grew up to be grinds and have a buried resentment” of strong men such as me and thee.

Not far into the correspondence, Crain has established himself as co-conspirator.

* * *

By the time the correspondence begins in 1952, Crain and Williams had been in business for nearly two decades, and could count representation of John Steinbeck and Margaret Mitchell among the feathers in their cap. In Charles Shields’s biography of Lee, Williams comes across like Holly Hunter playing Stevie Grant, unctuous and intimidating even to her clients—an impression Bonner conveyed to my grandmother too, though more lightly.

Ari N. Schulman

Bonner kept her letters as well. Far fewer than Crain’s, they convey nothing but sweetness. Many of her notes are postscripts jammed onto Crain’s letters, urging my grandfather to bring the family out to their Connecticut summer home. They never took up the offer, though Harper Lee did.

Crain did visit my grandparents, in late 1956—right around the time he met Lee—seemingly during a Christmas visit home to Texas. Shields describes Crain as athletic, fastidious, and chain-smoking. My grandmother recalls him as neatly dressed, businesslike, and unjocular. He sat in their study, reading the manuscript for Bonner’s latest novel.

“I had been told by Bonner to be sure and have whiskey,” she writes, “and I had a fifth of something good but Maurice read and drank steadily for hour after hour and the fifth was empty. I ran across the street to a neighbor and asked for whiskey and she gave me another fifth.” Over dinner, the conversation hewed closely to commentary on the manuscript, and Crain switched to beer.

Crain seemed to view his role not just as an agent of literary goods, but a steward of literary real estate, cultivating works over the long term and sometimes incurring damage over the short. In 1953, urging Bonner to abandon his first effort, Crain writes:

I know how deeply a writer can become attached to a first novel, particularly if at times he realizes that he was writing with power … I have known stubborn one-book writers who kept tinkering with the same engine that refused to start for all of their working lives. It is a sad waste of hope and man-hours.

Three years later, after the football novel The Long Ride Home defied expectations by reaching more than a niche market—serialization in Collier’s, a spot in the Reader’s Digest condensed books, a TV-movie adaptation—Crain says Bonner has arrived at a point in his career where he should avoid down-market publications, writing, “Next to talent itself, reputation in time becomes a writer’s chief capital.”

Crain compares first drafts to ore, saying, “If we are to be of value to you, we must report faithfully what the assay shows.” But a mine doesn’t feel the sting of its low estimation, and so ego management was clearly central to his mandate. Sometimes brutal criticism is tempered immediately by warm praise. When Bonner’s first book barely remakes its advance, Crain shrugs, “It happened to Sinclair Lewis.”

A similar principle held for publishers: “I feel that it is very well done but not quite the kind of thing we want,” said an editor at the New American Library, in what would become a refrain of the letters. But the most artful rejection came from Crain himself, declining to sell a short story: “Keep it among your souvenirs … for the eventual collection.”

* * *

The question that most interested me in the correspondence regarded the failure of my grandfather’s last book, So Long at the Fair (1964): to my mind, his most mature and “lit’ry” work. The story in my family is that the problem was timing. The novel was a wistful look at small-town life, set in the placid Texas landscape just before World War I, that arrived as the nation was entering a violent and broody mood.

Ari N. Schulman

On the day of the Kennedy assassination, Bonner, then a reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald, learned the news via wire reports, whose grim progression he later recounted to me. When he arrived home, my grandmother, almost as an afterthought, handed him a letter that had arrived that day. He opened it to read that Doubleday had accepted his book for publication.

By the time the book was released a year later, it still seemed like an afterthought. The New York Times, which had given Bonner’s first book a lengthy and mainly laudatory review, dropped only a short blurb. A barely restrained panic ensued between Bonner and Crain over reports that Doubleday had failed to get the book distributed to sellers in time to meet the initial demand.

My grandmother recalls an anemic marketing effort. The book’s packaging, for its part, is maudlin. The tagline, A novel about people who are the salt of the earth, mistakes the setting for the story. The jacket blurb induces even deeper yawns, billing it as a “heart-warming story” of “a less complicated age” when “a man put more faith in a good right cross than the right psychiatrist.”

But these characters are far from simple, and very far from pure. This, after all, is a book that opens with its narrator, 8-year-old Lanny, being mock-seduced by his 10-years-older cousin, Julia. Only, Lanny is too green to be in on the joke, which, it turns out, has a not entirely innocent purpose. The chapter ends with Julia planting on Lanny’s mouth what he recalls as “no cousin’s kiss,” whereupon he “yelled like I’d been bitten and fled in terror from the room.”

Ari N. Schulman

You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but the book is shot through with innuendo. The main literary appeal of the book is not the world it shows us but the window onto it: Lanny, a scamp who fancies himself a grown-up but doesn’t grasp the many adult scenes and conversations he witnesses, and thus lends a peculiar charm to the telling.

This device, in fact, is one of several similarities between my grandfather’s book and To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are coming-of-age stories of feisty children, set in the South of the early century. In both, the regionalisms and small-town charm belie rumbles in the distance from shifting cultural winds—civil rights in one, suffrage and feminism in the other.

The books had some similarities in their narrative development, too: Both started out as split adult-child narratives. In a letter dated January 14, 1957—the same day that Lee dropped off the first pages of Go Set a Watchman—Crain advises Bonner to focus on the adult’s perspective, the opposite of the advice he’d give Lee a short while later. In the end, both books used only the child’s timeline. But Mockingbird also includes Scout’s adult voice, and much of that book’s power comes from placing a child amongst the workings-out of peculiarly adult forms of hatred, heroism, and grace.

* * *

The correspondence peters out after the publication of So Long at the Fair, until the last letter, dated 1968, two years before Crain’s death:

SO LONG AT THE FAIR keeps troubling me. It remains the only book I have ever loved with a passion which was not similarly loved by a large public. I am still unwilling to believe that it wasn’t as good as I always thought it was.

Once, long before, Crain had written to Bonner, “You are one of maybe two or three hundred young novelists out of whom our literary big guns of the next decade are going to come.” My grandfather continued to labor over two novels that remained unfinished when he died last year, Crain’s prediction having never come to pass.

Bonner never spoke of his work, and my family rarely asked him about it. He was such a gifted mimic and storyteller that our requests were always for the true stories, with characters he’d been granted uncanny powers to bring back to life.

Sitting quietly with him one evening years ago, he asked me, unprompted, “What is your goal as a writer?” It caught me by surprise—by this time his mind had begun to go, and I didn’t know if he knew I was a writer at all, or trying to be, anyway. I fumbled for an answer then, only later wishing I’d returned the question.

As for Bonner, perhaps a hint of an answer for him lies between the lines of another of Crain's letters, this one from February 1961. Crain, writing from before the darker turn of the mid-sixties, rejects a "brutal and unpleasant" crime story Bonner had sent. Trying to assuage his feelings and push him back towards something more redemptive, Crain cites the burgeoning success of another book he'd recently nudged in the same direction.

I think it is closer to your kind of book than any other that comes to mind. The book is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee and I am proud of it[ ]because I handled it from the time it was a short story and a gleam in the author’s eye. She has the same ability you have to create living characters, from kids to old folks, so real that people from totally different environments immediately believe in them, the ability to recall childhood scenes and moods with complete clarity, the same gentle underlying humor which adds charm to the telling. I remember telling her, when trying to persuade her to go on and keep working at the Mockingbird, how well you had succeeded with similar material. I remember showing her that section of SO LONG AT THE FAIR where the boy is listening to the sounds of the gin whistles, near and distant, and how much she loved it.