January 18, 2011

The CCLaP 100: "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
By Harper Lee
Book #54 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Written in the late 1950s but set in the Great Depression of the '30s, Harper Lee's 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird seems at first like it's going to be a fairly simple, semi-autobiographical bildungsroman, the tale of a tomboyish girl named Scout growing up in a fading postbellum Alabama small town, and the various people who are in and out of her life -- from her rapidly maturing brother Jem to their nerdy summer friend Dill*, their mysteriously reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, and especially her hero of a father, a Rooseveltian liberal and single parent named Atticus who had kids late in life and has adopted a mostly hands-off parenting style, a public defender with just the right mix of idealism and practicality who in good Buddhist style believes that the best way to convince people to believe or act in a certain way is to simply and quietly live your own life that way yourself. But about halfway through, the plot of this otherwise slow-moving coming-of-age tale suddenly picks up the pace, when Atticus is assigned by the courts to defend a simplistic black man who's been accused by a family of literal drunken hillbillies of raping their daughter, which the entire town knows in advance that he will be convicted of, despite the entire town also knowing in advance that it was actually the drunken hillbilly father who perpetrated the assault. The rest of the book, then, is a look at why Atticus feels the need to so vigorously defend him despite having an almost zero chance of getting him acquitted, and why a group of locals want to lynch him before the verdict despite knowing that he will almost certainly be found guilty, and why the rest of the town gets so angry at Atticus simply for doing his job, the entire thing filtered through the eyes and thoughts of a feisty eight-year-old girl who can barely understand what all the fuss is about in the first place, making her subsequent disillusionment yet continued hopefulness at the end of the story that much more powerful.

The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, it won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, already unusual for the literary debut of an unknown author who would never write a single other book again; and in the 51 years since, it has become one of the most popular books on the planet, adapted as well into an Oscar-winning movie with Gregory Peck that's considered one of the finest films of all time too, all from a woman who has stayed remarkably humble about it all (yes, Lee is still alive, or at least as of January 2011), who has largely shunned the spotlight in the half-century since and who has never allowed the book to be used for self-serving purposes. (And this is to say nothing of the fact that, of the 500 or so book reviews I've posted at Goodreads.com since starting CCLaP, this book easily has the most followers out of any of them, a fact not to be lightly dismissed.) But much more importantly than this, argue its fans, it came out at exactly the right moment in history, a book not about the theories of racism but the practicalities of actually overcoming it that was released right at the dawn of America's burgeoning civil-rights movement, a novel that fans claim had as much of an influence on the anti-discrimination laws of the 1960s as Uncle Tom's Cabin did on abolition itself a hundred years earlier. After all, these fans say, the most remarkable thing about this book is that Atticus never preaches about civil rights (in fact, as a proud Southerner himself, his entire belief system regarding race is complicated and full of seeming hypocrisies), but rather argues that one can always fight for simple fairness no matter what they think of the specific person being discussed, welcome advice to millions of real-life Southerners in the 1960s, feeling confused over how exactly they should react to the spate of anti-segregation laws and bussed-in protestors they were suddenly having to deal with; and that of course is also why thousands of lawyers in this country proudly claim that it was this book and Atticus's example that made them want to get into the profession in the first place, from his fellow public defenders all the way up to Supreme Court justices.

The argument against:
"Bull-CRAP that this isn't a preachy book," argue this novel's critics, small in number but passionate in their hatred; in fact, they claim that To Kill a Mockingbird is nothing but a giant 300-page sermon, a hackneyed Sunday-school tale that blasts its earnestness with every overblown scene. And this is not to mention the subpar quality of the writing itself, they argue, including an adolescent girl with all the preternatural wisdom of a middle-aged man, traipsing around a Southern Gothic amusement park where barefoot children are forever taking impossibly romantic midnight strolls through the woods to go spying on comically charming moonshiners. A wet dream for lazy teachers and holier-than-thou liberals, critics claim that this book only became famous in the first place because it gives such people an easy excuse to be smugly self-righteous, a book not to be praised for its daring vision but ridiculed precisely for a lack of one.

My verdict:
Of all the different kinds of reading experiences I have through this CCLaP 100 series, easily my favorite is when a book turns out to be shockingly different than I was expecting it to be, such a difficult feat when you're talking about popular "classics" like these essays do; so under that definition, To Kill a Mockingbird would be one of my most enjoyable reads of all, since it turned out to be so diametrically different than how I had been led to believe it was going to be, given its reputation now as a perpetual simplistic junior-high history lesson about the Bad Old Days of the pre-civil-rights South. And that's because for its entire first half, this novel isn't about racism at all, but is rather a legitimate Southern Gothic character-based potboiler, essentially Lee's love letter to a way of life that had rapidly disappeared even by the 1960s when she wrote it -- the last moment in American history when it was still fairly common for rural families to live without electricity or running water, when reformist laws like required schooling for children were first being passed but were literally unenforceable if the household in question truly didn't want to cooperate. And that makes this book a lot more charming and fascinating than I thought it was going to be, a bittersweet elegy to a more genteel way of life that was quickly extinguished by cheap televisions, interstate highways, and the other innovations of Mid-Century Modernism, told through the eyes of a beguiling little girl who it's hard not to fall in love with.

And yes, although it can get heavy-handed here and there by the end, I was also surprised at the smart and subtle way that racism actually is handled, once this trial finally is introduced into the storyline about halfway through; and once again, it's largely because of the narrative itself being conveyed through the filter of this confused little girl, with Lee brilliantly showing us these events as only partially heard and understood by Scout, but with the unspoken follow-throughs and real messages coming through loud and clear to us jaded adults; for example, just look at the infamous lynch-mob scene about two-thirds of the way through, and of how Scout mistakes it for a simple night-time gathering of her father's friends. This is what ultimately saves the book from being the preachy sermon its critics claim it to be, and why it was so effective and moving when it first came out, because for the most part (with a few exceptions) Lee precisely avoids delivering any sermons here, making much of the book instead a largely judgement-free documentation of everyday events from that particular time and place in history, allowing readers to make up their own minds about the way that things progress, and with Scout simply amused and frustrated by it all. Ingeniously metaphorical at points, although like I said occasionally just a little too on-the-nose as well, To Kill a Mockingbird today easily enters my top-ten of personal favorites for this entire essay series so far, an unexpectedly powerful tale that I can whole-heartedly recommend guilt-free to even the most bitter, jaded readers.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis
Le Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Read even more about To Kill a Mockingbird: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

*And by the way, for those who still don't know, the geeky summer visitor Dill in this book is based directly on Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote, who would be catapulted into his own literary fame during the same years that Mockingbird made such a splash; in fact, Lee traveled with Capote to Kansas while he was researching his nonfiction bestseller In Cold Blood, and helped keep him emotionally grounded during that chaotic time in his life.

(UPDATE: After writing this, I came across another online reviewer who argues that the older brother Jem is really the most interesting character of all, and who goes through the biggest emotional journey; and that reminded me of an observation I meant to make in my own write-up that I forgot to do, of how Jem [who becomes much more bitter and angry about the world after this crooked trial than Scout does] can really be seen as a stand-in for those middle-aged leaders of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s when the book was actually written and published, the ones who saw injustice as children and carried that anger with them for decades, until reaching the Kennedy years and realizing they could finally do something about it. If Atticus is our noble hero and Scout is our Greek chorus, then Jem is our everyman who is profoundly changed by it all, who in the '60s would be one of those successful white businessmen who nonetheless went out and marched in the streets with Martin Luther King.)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:32 PM, January 18, 2011. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |