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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird: Introduction

"Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books." --Harper Lee

The first novel of our ambitious narrative project (a reading, review, and discussion of 100 novels) will kick off with Harper Lee's 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. I will post a review on November 1, and this novel will be the topic of discussion for the month. I hope you choose to read along, I look forward to your thoughts. And if you decide to post anything on your blog, send me the link so that I can link to your thoughts. For those of you reading ahead, the novel for December will be Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

Upon publication, To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant classic. It quickly became a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize within a few years of publication. In 1999, it was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll by the Library Journal.

Interestingly, this was Harper Lee's only novel. Only a few years after publication, Lee disappeared from public life. Her novel was four years in the making, starting out as a project to write out some of the stories of her childhood. The novel evolved, however, and became a commentary on southern life and racism.

Said Lee, "I never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird.' ... I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

The book is loosely autobiographical, based on stories of Lee's childhood in Monroeville, Alabama in 1936 when she was 10 years old. The father figure and hero attorney Atticus Finch is a loose interpretation of Lee's own father. Another example is Dill, a character in the novel who mirrors Lee's childhood friend and life long collaborator, Truman Capote.

Lee describes her four year writing process as a "long and hopeless period of writing, over and over again." At one point, she threw the manuscript out into the snow, but she was convinced by her agent to go get it and send it in.

The novel's primary strengths are two-fold. First and foremost, Lee is an amazing story teller. She gives amazing descriptions of life in the south, primarily from the perspective of a child. This is a perfect example of the strategy "writing what you know." Although the novel is warm, engaging, and often humorous, the subject matter is racism and scapegoating, so the novel is also dark and gothic. The reader has to engage something very evil about human nature. As such, Mockingbird manages to capture the innocence and simplicity of childhood while never flinching from the dark and disturbing elements of blind, murderous racism. Somehow, the novel is both charming and wrenching, engaging the best and worst of the human condition.

The book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan, with a screenplay by Horton Foote. The lead is played by Gregory Peck, and the film is considered one of the best and most true film adaptations of a novel.

In terms of stylistic elements, I have previously mentioned the remarkable story telling ability of Lee. Along these lines, it is intriguing to discuss voice. The voice of the narrator is primarily that of a child, Scout. But at certain key moments, this child's voice shows a certain reflectiveness and maturing of a much older woman looking back on her experiences. This blending of perspectives is subtle and accomplished with great skill, so it is difficult to notice. However, when reading through, look for the unique way that Haper Lee uses her narration voice: primarily childhood naivete with a smattering of an older and more reflective commentary.

Mockingbird definitely challenges conventional class and race perceptions. One example of the challenge to classism is a scene where Scout is chastised by her father and by the black servant, Calpurnia, for displaying naive classism toward a guest in their home. The challenge to conventional racism is also clear and the primary subject of the novel. One of the primary messages of the novel comes from Atticus who teaches his children not to judge someone else until they have "walked around in their skin."

And yet despite it's obvious uplifting and positive message, I think it would be good to look a bit deeper: does the story telling of the novel display classism, and even racism? For example, who is the hero of the story? A black man or a white man? Which characters receive the most character development, the blacks or whites? (Which characters are static versus dynamic?) The point of such inquiries is not to undercut the importance of the book or negate its positive impact, but simply to deal realistically with the text. For example, as a white man, I find the novel incredibly uplifting, but would I feel the same positive emotions if I were a black woman?

Again, this line of inquiry does not negate the positive contribution of the novel to race and class relations. Clearly the main theme ("walk around in their skin") is a message of respect for others who are different, but is there some sense in which the novel reduces blacks or the poor lower class? Is there some sense in which the ignorant poor whites need to be tolerated and the powerless blacks need to be rescued by the heroic white man? This is a subtlety that I would like to discuss. Do those who are morally enlightened and empowered in a society (like that of the novel) picture themselves as those who give power to the powerless? In this case, I still sense a subtle elitism at work.

And now, I have saved the best for last: the theme of the scapegoat.

Another important theme to look for in the novel is the scapegoat. I will discuss this more in my review, but there is something that I think is deeper in the novel than racism. Look for the way in which Tom becomes a scapegoat for the community, a way in which they are able to handle their differences through the sacrifice of an innocent victim. The sacrifice of the scapegoat becomes a way to discharge the deep anger and hostility of the individuals and the collective community. The scapegoat is innocent. Look for the theme of innocence in the novel and the way in which innocence is represented and often destroyed. "It's a sin to kill a mockingbird" because mockingbirds only sing and give pleasure to those who hear them.

There is much to discuss and I look forward to November.

Happy reading!


chris van allsburg said...

I lost my copy, or perhaps gave it back to my dad. Looking forward to reading it again. I remember when I first read it in 1997, I couldn't stop talking about it! But now, I barely remember it. Sad.

Friendship SMS said...

A fantastic piece of literature. The story is about two children, Jem & his sister Scout and their lawyer father Atticus. It is about childhood innocence and hypocrisy and false values of the grown ups. The story is narrated from Scout's perspective. It weaves magic throughout story. It makes you think. It has left deep imprint on my psyche. Atticus, the lawyer father, is wonderful and his advice to children and his discourse with Mr Tate in the end is really courageous and adorable. It'll definitely enrich you.