Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Sculpture by Sarah Lovett - Censorship into Art: Banned Books Display

Sculpture by Sarah Lovett – Censorship into Art: Banned Books Display

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

I generally try to come up with a cohesive narrative, whether it’s a plot summary or thematic recount or an examination of the convergence of style and content, when I post about stories or books, but I’ve been struggling for several days with this one (which is why I’ve been a bit quiet this week). How to comment on one of the most-read, most-loved (and most-hated) books of the 20th century? There’s a universe of literary commentary a click away, and I’m not about to compete with that. Complicating this: I just happen to be in one of my less-focused phases right now.

So I’ve decided to just post my little bits and pieces, my personal experience of having read this book, at this time – because it’s an interesting time to read this book.

“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

Back in the early 90s, an Emmy-winning TV series titled I’ll Fly Away aired for a few seasons. I always thought of it as To Kill a Mockingbird set in the 60s: a white Southern lawyer, his three children, and their black housekeeper struggled to reconcile their own feelings about the Civil Rights movement with the reactions of their friends and neighbors.

I figured I read TKAM in junior high, probably, that’s when most kids read it, maybe high school since I went to school in Florida; I wasn’t sure, but it would’ve been some time back in the late 60s or early 70s, shortly after the setting of the TV show, a time of ideas and assumptions still in transition and under challenge. I didn’t remember many of the details beyond the overall plot and themes. I didn’t remember how I felt while reading the book, what I’d thought, how I’d related it to what I saw going on around me every day.

So when I chose to read this as the next book in my “Catching Up With The Class-ics” series, I expected to recognize all those things I’d read long ago.

It didn’t happen that way. I don’t think I ever read TKAM. I just assumed I had, and must’ve absorbed enough from reading about it to support that assumption. I went to eighth grade in South Florida (circa 1968), and while that’s always been less Southern than Northern Florida, it uses the same state curriculum guidelines. And somehow, I managed to absorb the jist of the book, and somehow trick myself into thinking that I’d read it.

I’m glad I’ve actually correcting that wrong, albeit belatedly, now.

“That’s what I thought, too,” he said at last, “when I was your age. If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time . . . it’s because he wants to stay inside.”

I found myself wondering in the first two chapters when Atticus would turn into the father everyone wished she had; he seemed rather standoffish and severe at first, and I wasn’t sure what to make of that, especially since at that point I was still clinging to my belief that I’d read the book before. I was relieved when he finally pulled Scout onto his lap and entered into this little conspiracy to allow her to continue reading; that’s the Atticus I was waiting for. And it was at that point I wondered what my reaction was the first time I’d read the book, and the little idea that maybe I hadn’t began to take shape.

Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.

Because my focus is usually on short stories, I was at first a bit impatient with Part I, which lays the foundation for the classic courtroom scene and the aftereffects. I had to remind myself this was a novel, a different pace, and enjoy it on its own terms. The leisurely weaving of themes – a racism that’s assumed even as it’s challenged, a status quo based on lies and deliberate misconfigurations, straitjackets of gender, class, and history, hypocrisy, the nature of courage and that of fear – became almost a puzzle, a scavenger hunt of sorts.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

By coincidence, this week I had a run of hits on a BASS story (a frequent occurrence, presumably some class somewhere is reading the story and a bunch of searches take place) from 2010: Karen Russell’s “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach.” I looked at my comments from back then (to see just how stupid they might seem, check links, and fix straggling typos), and remembered the details of the story – it involved a bunch of little treasures – items from the future – left in a knothole by a seagull. I wonder if there’s a connection, conscious or subconscious; if Russell was thinking of TKAM when she wrote her story, or if it’s coincidence.

Don’t fool yourselves – it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.

Nelle Harper Lee (she dropped the “Nelle” for the book because she was worried it would be turned into “Nellie” when it’s actually the name of her grandmother spelled backwards) was a tomboy when she was a kid in small-town Alabama, and her father was a lawyer who unsuccessfully defended two black men ultimately hanged for killing a shopkeeper. She chose the name Atticus in reference to Roman scholar Titus Pomponius Atticus, because she considered him “a wise and learned man.” I think Atticus – both of them – would be proud.

“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

Art is context; and enjoying art is also context. All of these items I’ve mentioned were part of my enjoyment of this book, as much as character, theme, plot development, structure, style. I found myself amused, angry, comforted, impressed, hopeful, discouraged, all at once and in turn. And yes, I teared up at the end.

It’s hard to discuss a Great Book; everything that can be said, has been said, so what’s left is my experience of the read, right now, in this exact time.

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