Don’t Mock The Bird

Eat your heart out, rainy Mondays. It’s Thursday, and as I type, a gorgeous 94 degrees in Seattle (yes, the fleece-clad Pacific Northwesterners are shucking their vests and keeling over at dog parks this very minute. Those who aren’t paddling rickety surfboards with deck brooms outside my house, that is). And this California native could not be happier with my tall glass of iced tea, my comfy deck chair, and a good coating of SPF. The serious case of ennui is behind me, I think; while I’d still love a vacation from the extreme busy-streak of this summer, and I’m still looking forward to getting heavily into my work on the new book, I’m feeling pretty content.

So as I try to teach some literature to my high school kids this summer (new quote regarding We Have Always Live in the Castle from class today: “that was the best ending ever.” Booya!), I’ve been rather tuned-in to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. (aside: one former student  was quite disappointed the book was “To Kill a”–not “Tequila”–Mockingbird. Oy.)

Harper Lee’s single novel made quite an impression on me when I first read it in high school, and I believe the same is true of many readers of my generation. When I was 14, it surprised me, shocked me, and made me think differently about race than I’d been asked to before. So it was with a bit of surprise that I read this article Wall Street Journal article on Mockingbird, in which Allen Barra claimed:

“It’s time to stop pretending that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is some kind of timeless classic that ranks with the great works of American literature. Its bloodless liberal humanism is sadly dated, as pristinely preserved in its pages as the dinosaur DNA in ‘Jurassic Park.’

Harper Lee’s contemporary and fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor (and a far worthier subject for high-school reading lists) once made a killing observation about “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”

Wow. I fear Mr. Barra’s being a bit–maybe more than a bit–of a chauvinist. In his article, he mentions Faulkner, Hurston, McCullers, and O’Connor, among others, as having achieved greater literary value than has Harper Lee, but he fails explain his rationale (he briefly skims off a note about the Klan in Alabama, but fails to make his references clear to the non-Alabaman, so I fear I’m not equipped to speak to his implications of a latent racism in Mockingbird.).

Yes, Faulkner may have written some the crowning achievements of American Southern literature. And O’Connor is, to my mind, the master of realist horror. But Harper Lee achieved something very different: she wrote a book that engaged mass culture with controversial ideas at a moment critical to the future of civil rights in the US. She photographed the American South in both the ugly truth of what it had been, and the hope it could have for a reconciled future. Her work is, as Barra admits, required reading in some 75 percent of American high school classrooms; in 50 years, Mockingbird has touched, and maybe even transformed, a vast number of young people in the nation. So by what measure of literature is Harper Lee’s book a lesser achievement than Faulkner’s? And what does it say about our literary values that we denigrate the ability to influence the young? What bothers me the most, I think, is that Barra’s argument seems to disregard a fundamental part of the English heritage of literature in English: the scop recited his poem not to jockey for best use of caesura, but to remind the listener of the tales of his people, and to contextualize their current communal lives.

Finally, while I do not know the context of O’Connor’s statement that Barra quotes to advance his position, I like to think that O’Connor, who wasn’t one to turn away from the most unflattering sides of human behavior, may very well have been pointing out an important point: kids get it. Do you?

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3 Replies to “Don’t Mock The Bird”

  1. Kelly, like you I had many of the same feelings regarding TKM, and was unpleasantly surprised when I read the WSJ article. Barra may be correct in a pure literary sense, but your point about the connection and impact on broader society is spot on. Well said!

    …and the movie is still darn good too.

  2. Excellent points. My kids both resonated strongly with the book and the play and the movie. The themes may be “an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious,” but nonetheless, it still reeks of complexities. Even the ending: I have always wondered why Atticus takes the “story” that Tom ran at face value. Sounds to me like Tom could easily have been forced to run by his captors, who still weren’t satisfied, even with a guilty verdict. Gets me every time. (I’m referring to the movie version, of course — I haven’t read the book in a while.)

  3. Joe, it’s that literary sense that’s so tricky. What exactly is that literary sense, and if a book has ethical, moral, and cultural value, doesn’t literary value tend to accrue around that point of interest in an otherwise beautifully written book? I don’t know, but like to think it might.

    Claire, that’s true that there are plenty of complexities in the novel. The novel is as much a growing up story as it is a story of racial injustice, and I tend to think that what’s obvious to adults may be what’s so timely and interesting to young people.

    I also think part of the beauty of fiction is showing us what we already know in a way that opens our understanding in new ways. I think of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and the way it re-examined Howard’s End. It didn’t succeed because it did anything new with the same turns of plot, but because it related that plot to us in new ways…

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