Showing posts with label Nelle Harper Lee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nelle Harper Lee. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Defending the Honor of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Regular readers here know that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books.  I teach it twice a year (once each semester) to my tenth graders.  Additionally, in my right sidebar, I had Mary McDonagh Murphy's new book, Scout, Atticus, and Boo, highlighted for several weeks.  Murphy's book is a collection of responses from celebrities (mostly) about their response to Harper Lee's iconic novel.

Now there's this review from The Weekly Standard of Murphy's book.  I don't wholly disagree with some of these conclusions.  Reviewer Philip Terzian is less than impressed with Murphy's book and came to basically the same conclusion I did:  Who cares what a bunch of celebs think of this novel?

Of course, it is altogether too tempting to recount, ad infinitum, the wisdom of celebrities as they seek to find meaning in life. But it is worth noting that their flattery of To Kill a Mockingbird is sincere, in such peoples’ fashion: This is an important novel because it helped to make them what they are today, and gave them a career boost at some strategic moment on the journey. Not a word about the language of the novel, or its structural qualities, or whether or not it is a work of consequence. Indeed, most reflections seem to come from the movie, not the written version, which tells us something about the witnesses and, of course, about Miss Lee’s bestseller.

But oh!  The painful derision of Miss Lee's book is more than I can bear.

Not only does Terzian call the novel - gasp - "mediocre," but he also criticizes the 1962 film and calls Gregory Peck's performance his "lugubrious worst."  Great Scott!

As if that weren't enough, Terzian links to a Wall Street Journal article from June of this year which, thankfully, I had missed.  There was much fanfare this summer about the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lee's novel, and I missed this one.  Not so, now. 

In this WSJ piece, Allen Barra (who writes about sports and arts for the Journal) takes the classic novel to task in eviscerating form:

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." 

What?  What?!  Are you kidding me? Good grief, Mr. Barra!  Have you no sense of the real beauty of the novel?  Has all the symbolism totally escaped you?  The beauty of the southern language?  Why, Atticus's closing argument at the end of Tom Robinson's trial is one of the most beautifully written passages I've ever read!  Harper Lee brings her novel full circle and thoroughly captures the innocence of childhood in her youthful characters while in the end revealing the painful reality of growing up in a world where people aren't really very nice to each other.

My sophomores love the novel and many totally "get" the themes of not fitting in (Boo, Mayella, even Tom, for that matter) or being unfairly judged.  The symbolism of the snowman is the first time that "lightbulb" goes off over their heads and many begin to understand what symbolism even IS for the first time; when the rabid dog, Tim Johnson, comes along, they get that one without my telling them. 

Harper Lee may not have written War and Peace, but who reads War and Peace anymore?  She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel and the adoration of so many readers can't be that far off base, even if some are a bunch of airheaded celebrities, as Murphy's book indicates.  When my students close the book after the last page and say to me with satisfaction, "I loved that book!", that's all I need.

No, I don't care what Mr. Barra says.  I will continue to teach and adore To Kill a Mockingbird and it will always have a prized spot on my shelf and in my heart.  If it's meant to be "a children's book" or for adults, I don't care.  Every time I read the novel I discover something new and to me, that's a sign of a great book.

Monday, July 12, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird: The Fiftieth Anniversary

One of my favorite books of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird, turned 50 this weekend.  Yesterday was the anniversary date of its publication.

I've been teaching for fifteen years and for the past ten, I've taught To Kill a Mockingbird every year (twice a year because when second semester starts in January, I get new classes. So, to six classes per school year (3 and 3) multiplied by ten years, well, I've taught the book to a lot of students.  This makes for a lot of class discussions and lots of different perspectives on Harper Lee's masterpiece.

When I started seeing articles lately about the anniversary and about the celebrations around the country, and especially in Monroeville, I also learned of Mary McDonagh Murphy's new book, Scout, Atticus and Boo It's a companion to a documentary she's done in which she interviews a number of people about their reactions to the book.  What fascinates me is that although almost everyone says the book changed their life or made them look at things in a new way, everyone gets something different out of the book.

Murphy says that what surprised her was how many different answers she got when she asked each person their favorite passage in the book.  And what I always tell my students, and what is absolutely true, is that every time I re-read it, I pick up on something I missed before, or something new reveals itself to me.

I've left the book at my mom's (see previous post) or I'd quote something from it for you, but it's really been interesting.  I'm about to read Murphy's interview with Alice Lee, the older sister.

As far as Harper Lee's (and nobody actually calls her that by the way), I don't begrudge her decision for privacy one bit.  The almost universal explanation from those who know her is that she said what she had to say in the book, she was never happy with attempts at another, and she doesn't give interviews because reporters asked dumb questions.  She gave a few after publication, but after a while, enough.  Done.  She doesn't like people making a buck off of her, either.  In Murphy's book we learn that the author used to go to the local bookstore in Monroeville and sign lots of copies of the book for them to sell but then greedy folks would come buy them all and sell them on eBay, so she quit doing that.

I wish I had one of those!  What a treasure! 

We'll read the book in my classes again this fall and I'll share with my students this year some comments from Murphy's book.  Maybe they'll be more motivated to read it when they hear what others have thought and how it impacted them.  Some teenagers, of course, love to read, but it's always sort of a challenge getting some of my slower learners or those who have never read a novel before, ever, to read this one.  Some of the language at the beginning of the novel might be off-putting to them; the history of Maycomb doesn't just grab them at first.  I always show a brief clip of the beginning of the film so they can see what's coming and that usually does it, but not always.  Some never read it, and that's a shame.

So.  Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird?  How many times?  And what was your favorite passage?!  I want to know!

Here's a clip from CBS News on the anniversary, while you're thinking about your answers: