Monday, July 12, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Collins has just reprinted the classic novel with its original jacket rendition.
I couldn't let the recent 50th anniversary of a great novel pass without tipping my hat to Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was the first adult novel I ever read, in Mrs. Ann Royce's class, in 7th grade English class at St. Patrick's School in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. I was drawn into the dreamy and sultry, yet divided, Southern world of manners and injustice that Lee's heroine, Scout Finch, so beautifully describes and narrates throughout the novel: 
"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flied in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."
The story was not only compelling but timely. It remains one of my favorite novels. With Mrs. Royce, one of many memorable teachers but one of my best English teaches along the way, we wrote short essays about the book, had vocabulary tests from it, discussed it in class and even had to write our first term papers on it. I felt so grown up delving into class discussions and thinking about what I was reading in a new way. Somewhere in a box from our move I still have that term paper, typed on onion skin, and the cover collage that I made from magazine bits and words. I haven't read the book since 1975 and think it's time for a reread, just as it is time for our oldest son to read it. In the same class we also read Carson McCuller's novel, A Member of the Wedding, and I remember being struck as a 12-year old girl by the power of the young female voices of Lee's Scout and McCuller's Frankie. They were what I needed to hear at the time. I had just moved to a new state and school, even though I had loved coming there in the summers to see my grandparents, at a very inward and insecure time for me. Reading this kind of fiction was empowering.

As was J.D. Salinger in his lifetime, Lee has been largely silent for many years in the public eye and never published anything after her only novel's release. Her sister was quoted as saying that Lee told her that she she couldn't possibly live up to her own, or everyone's, expectations with a second novel so why even try? The work has no doubt sustained her financially all of these years but you have to wonder if she just stopped writing or, as Salinger was witnessed doing after he stopped publishing, if she has kept writing for herself.

Harper Lee, c. 1962, during movie filming.
A few years ago, two movies were done about Truman Capote's writing of In Cold Blood, with which Harper Lee assisted him, at least in the fact-finding. They were childhood friends and Capote was the inspiration for Scout and Jem's friend, Dill, in To Kill A Mockingbird. My favorite of the two movies was Capote, with its Oscar-winning performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Oscar-nominated Catherine Keener portraying Lee (who also should have won: one of these years the Academy will recognize this fine actress. I recall reading that Harper Lee was struck by Keener's performance at the time). It was a bleaker, drier film whereas the other less memorable one, whose title I can't even recall, was campier and silly, with a really dull performance by Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee (ok, so she had the hair right). Of course, the movie version of Lee's book was its own masterpiece and hopefully it will not follow the trend of Hollywood remakes. It would never have the same power or effect as the black and white original, narrated version starring Gregory Peck (its courthouse copied from the one in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama).

Among the powers of To Kill a Mockingbird is that it was written in a period in our history before the Civil Rights Act was even passed and when a person of color was still legally, and always immorally, discriminated against. That it was written by a white woman who seemed to understand racial injustice from a child's voice, that was no doubt the author's own, is even more extraordinary. When the book caused a great stir and was banned in many school districts, Lee wrote this response in a rare public letter to the editor: "Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners." ["Harper Lee Twits School Board In Virginia for Ban on Her Novel". The New York Times: p. 82. 1966-01-16.]

It is also a book about children and the loss of innocence––and the validation and the respect that we should have for children––as much as it is about race and Southern culture. A nation, and its readers, and hopefully generations of young readers in the years to come, will be forever grateful to Miss Harper Lee and her Pulitizer-prize winning magnum opus.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960


willow said...

I just read on a blog this morning how Harper Lee has actually become Boo Radley. The reporters and paparazzi hounding her would be very much like killing a mockingbird. Interesting thoughts, huh?

Catherine said...

Yes, Willow, it must be hard to be a famous writer and also get your privacy, too, especially in this celebrity-scandal driven culture. It's refreshing, really, and I've always loved a good recluse.

Stay cool up there!

Anonymous said...

CBS's "Sunday Morning" did a piece on the novel and the festivities that were going on in Monroeville to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary. Harper Lee, as expected, granted no interviews and did not participate. I wish I could tell her how much her novel meant to me.

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