Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Thoughts on To Kill a Mock--Yeah!--Ing--Yeah!--Bird--Yeah!

It’s really happening, ya’ll. After 55-some years, an impossible wait in a day and age where movie sequels are planned out six years in advance, in mid-July we will have our hands on a new book from Harper Lee. Even more, not only is it a new book, as exciting as that would be, but it's a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird titled Go Set a Watchman. Unbelievable.
To prepare for this momentous occasion, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird—my third reading. Re-reading it now, some two months from the release of the sequel, was by design—I wanted Mockingbird fresh in my mind, but not too fresh.
Now I understand that there is a very good chance that Watchman will fail to wow me from a narrative and creative standpoint. Following up a true classic is never easy--trust me, I've read Mark Twain's attempts at a Huck Finn sequel. Nevertheless, Go Set a Watchman will still be fascinating. Leaving creative considerations aside, from a scholarly perspective, this is mind-blowing stuff, an opportunity to see the formation process of a true American classic.
I won't sit here and talk (too much) about how great Mockingbird is. It is, in my opinion, but the book doesn't need me to promote it. But after my re-reading, a few things jumped out at me. For no particular reason, I feel like expounding on them.
Is anybody married in Maycomb, Alabama? Scout, Jem, and Dill are of course kids, Atticus is famously a widower and single father, Calpurnia’s marital status goes unmentioned although she does have children, Boo Radley is a recluse, all of the woman mentioned on their block are unmarried, and Bob Ewell is also a widower. The only married characters of note are Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused rapist, and Aunt Alexandra, who seems to despise her husband. I suppose it’s no wonder Harper Lee has spent her life single! It'll be interesting to see how the sequel handles this.

In the book, Jem is short for Jeremy. My name is Jeremy. Nobody has ever called me Jem. Nobody ever will. Or else!

One thing that really troubled me while I pored through background information on the book were the allegations that Lee’s childhood friend and neighbor Truman Capote had much to do with the creation of Mockingbird. Implications are numerous that he either wrote the novel or did much of the heavy lifting. I couldn’t help but feel that some of this stemmed from the fact that Harper Lee is a female—after all, how could a mere woman write something so good? Then again, perhaps I was looking too far into things. I tried to let it slide. Yet, it gnawed at me. Something did not feel right.
Then I got to thinking about JK Rowling, and how quickly some people believed that she had plagiarized a large portion of her Harry Potter books. If you recall, she was sued by someone who claimed to have written a book titled Larry Potter and his Best Friend Lilly. It later came out in court that this was a fraud perpetrated on the court and the case was dismissed with prejudice, but in some circles, the allegations seem to have stuck and Rowling has not been given her deserved credit. I can vividly recall some of the comments made by writer friends of mine who dismissed Rowling’s talent.
Digging deeper, I recently learned that the first Harry Potter book was published with the author credit of Joanne Rowling. This was subsequently changed by her publisher to JK. Why? Because her publisher believed that fantasy readers would not buy a book written by someone they assumed was a female author.
So is there sexism at work stoking these rumors about Lee and Capote, keeping them alive to this day despite plenty of evidence to the contrary? I’ll leave it to you to judge. To me, something doesn’t smell right.
Out of curiosity, I read through a smattering of Mockingbird reviews online. How do other people feel about this book that I love? Yes, it is considered a classic, but that does not make it immune from being ripped to shreds by people on the internet, who seem to hate everything. 

Frankly, this is a valuable exercise for a writer—no matter what you create, no matter how well it might be received by some, not everyone is going to like it. It’s a simple fact of life and there’s no getting around it. With Mockingbird, the criticisms are many and they run deep. Most of them are dismissed easily enough. But what got to me was the reviewers who not only disliked the book, but stated it did not have any value at all. I cannot say that I agree with this. The book is fantastic.
One of the problems as I see it is that these critics want to see the characters act in a way that is more compatible with the values held by and large in our current society. They say: “Why doesn’t Atticus act more aggressive in combating racism?” Or they might write: “Why do the black people in town sit here and take this treatment? Why don’t they do something? It’s not realistic.” I even read a review that panned the book because there were not any black characters present in Scout’s classroom, stating that if Lee was interested in opening eyes to racism, the classroom would have been integrated.
One problem. The book was set in the 30s. In the south. The Jim Crow south. To place a black character in a classroom with white students would have been a rather large, glaring mistake. In fact, it would be so glaring that it would've completely sunk the book. Yet this person’s one-star review is given as much weight as another reader’s five-star, informed review. Such is life.
Another criticism that was common was that the book is “meant for children.” For example, well known Southern writer Flannery O'Connor commented:

"I think for a child's book it does all right. It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they're reading a child's book. Somebody ought to say what it is."
That quote pops up a lot from the negative nellies who are looking for ammunition from someone with "credibility" and our glad to have it, but that’s the problem with taking quotes from experts: you can almost find an expert on the other side as well. They’re only an internet search away. So to this quote I have one of my own, from the great C.S. Lewis: 

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

The really well done books that I enjoyed as a child and teenager have held up immensely well when re-reading them as an “adult.” To Kill a Mockingbird certainly does. I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel.

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