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.


Instugator said...

My wife is from Singapore and studied "To Kill a Mockingbird" in junior college. To this day it is her favorite novel, more so I think for the use of language than anything else. She didn't really get "southern" until she moved to Benton, now the south is her favorite part of the US.

Anonymous said...

Its great having a sister who is a lit teacher because you always get introduced to great books that you never read but should have.

Pat, way to call a spade a spade. a book about celebs opinions of a classic piece of literature..who cares? I have met lots of celebs..they are generally pompous, opinionated morons. So an author that writes about their opinions? Geez......and a WSJ columnist..enough said there.

I guess you should bring me this book to read so I can see if you are right..AGAIN!!

steve said...

I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and didn't learn a thing. I still don't know how to kill one.

Jim said...

Pat, I just read it again about a month ago. What a great book!

Anonymous said...

I still love To Kill A Mockingbird, and remember the teacher who assigned it in my 8th grade literature class, Mr. Robert Evans at Mary V. Quirk Jr. High in Warren, RI. I'm always floored when I read disparaging comments about the novel, it makes no sense to me. Now, it's been some time since I last read it, but I don't recall Atticus being identified as a democrat.. it certainly wouldn't have made sense, as democrats of the period were the ones who wrote and enforced Jim Crow laws, and were the ones in the Klan. It was republicans who pushed for the voting rights act, and the civil rights laws.

The novel is filled with the morality and integrity that stood up to the great wrong of prejudice and bigotry. Perhaps we've allowed the novel to be exploited by the left, and not engaged in an in-depth discussion of the period in which the novel is set (the '30s or '40s). I remember Mr. Evans always insisting on an in-depth discussion of each of the books on our required reading list, and some additional work studying the place, people and period in which one of the novels were set. Whether it was To Kill a Mockingbird, Shane, Siddhartha, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Fahrenheit 451 or Animal Farm.

Anyway, I wanted to thank you so much for assigning this and the other required reading you no doubt assign. I know I greatly benefited from Mr. Evans class, and it stayed with me. When my daughter started in junior high, I was appalled that her teachers weren't assigning much reading at all, and she was in the collegiate program at her public school. After bumping heads with a teacher and her guidance counselor, I put together a required reading list hit the book store and assigned her one book at a time. To make up for not being able to provide her an in class discussion environment and wanting to make it less, something "mom made me do it". I decided early on to turn it into a kind of book club, where we both read the novel at the same time, and talked about it, encouraged her to learn more about the people, place and period.

She's now 27 and is pursuing her masters. I give credit where credit is due, Mr. Evans, an incredible teacher, who not only taught me a lot, but helped inspire me to help ensure my daughter received the education she needed. I'm sure your students will always appreciate the gift you're giving them.

Mary (from Warwick, RI who doesn't have a blogger account)

Charlene said...

As to comparing it with War & Peace? I certainly can identify with Miss Lee's book more than W&P!

Critics often give opinions that I don't agree with. In fact when the movie critic pans a new movie, I almost always go see it. I enjoy the movie more often than not.

Chris M. said...

I think it is undeniable that TKMB is an enjoyable and timeless work But it is also undeniable that its good qualities are weighted down by some dated and bloodless liberal humanism. Tom is too good, too innocent, too much a victim. I would think most readers would at some point, looking back on the experience of reading the novel, feel that they had been emotionally manipulated.
I can see that its weakness might make it more accessible to high school sophomores. My main objection to that is that kids are exposed to too much liberal pap in school already.
I see the attraction as I try to think of other works that have as many good qualities and are as accessible to high school kids. And I can think of few candidates to replace TKMB. Orwell’s ’Animal Farm’ and 1984 are often enjoyed by sophomores but I think Harper Lee’s prose is more beautiful and I would rather see a teen exposed to her language and her Southern world. Kafka’s ’Metamorphosis’ is good and ’The Trial’ is OK but would probably be a little too tedious for high school. I think Mann’s ’Felix Krull, Confidence Man’ might work well. A selection of stories from Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ might be good for more advanced kids. But I can see why you might end up always returning to TKMB.
I am sure ‘War and Peace’ will always be read. But since so many American public school kids are getting so little preparation for reading it is doomed to become less common here.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

Wow... just wow.

Out here it gets read at either the MS or HS level. I really like that book. Did you ever read 'Finding Scout?'

Laurence L. said...

Good to know there's someone else who knows it a critic pans a movie I will definitely like it.

TKMB is a great book, and the flick was even beter, very well done by all he players.....but..... know though, that the mockingbird is a fraud.

Anonymous said...

I didn't read the book, but my daughter read it. Her interpretation of the book was that mockingbirds were spiritual birds and never bothered or harmed any other creatures. Also, she understood it to say that whomever kills one will be cursed. I have concerns with that because I know mockingbirds are the most violent and aggressive birds in the southern region as well as they are not on my spiritual bird list. I can relate to the story but the underlining teaching is false and should not be taught in school. This is the day and time for truth to be taught. Maybe rebel southerners like mockingbirds because of their grey color as was the rebel uniform. Could it be as well because of their aggressive territorial behavior that the southerners fell a connection to them? I don't know..You tell me...

Tina said...

Anonymous @ October 29, 2010 8:42 PM, sometimes with Southern phrases and sayings, a good understanding of local Natural History and Indian Lore is essential. The Blue Jay steals the nests of other birds and murders their eggs. Its voice is raucous at best and its reputation in Indian legend is that of a trickster, a deceiver.
The Mockingbird is the State Bird of several states for good reason. Yes, it is territorial and aggressive (so are hummingbirds), but it also mates for life. Its complex song reflects the sounds it hears - and thus the mockingbird serves as a witness. A witness faithfully recounts the truth without interpretation, respecting the need for the hearer (reader) to decide and judge for themselves.
I think it is in this context, that of silencing the witness/killing the truth, that Harper Lee invented the phrase that would take on a life of its own (that's some powerful writing - to invent a maxim and have it adopted as though it were centuries old).

The story is full of unpopular "justice issues", too, if one wishes to look. The catastrophic results of a woman crying "rape" instead of owning her own shame. The limited ability of a man to defend himself against such an accusation. A place in which the man's character is admissible but the woman's is not. The compassion of a Sheriff who has the right to elect not to charge Boo Radley - and the evil of a legalistic society that demands someone "pay" no matter what. The reality of American life in the South, where many things were unjust and wrong, but where because everyone was there together, mingling every day, people had a chance to spend time with each other and change their minds when they learned the truth. And that (I think) is why it was "a sin to kill a Mockingbird".