Thursday, February 19, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
seen on TV @ TCM

My copy of To Kill a Mockingbird looks like the kind you'd get in school. For one thing, it's got "Property of the Board of Education of the City of New York" stamped on the first page. I don't remember what grade I read the book in, but I imagine it must have made an impression on me if I kept it. Also, it's got a hardcover that binds the pages so tight, the gutter comes very close to swallowing the text, so I have to turn the book around a little in order to read. It goes without saying that I can't lay it down flat.

As I said, I don't recall when I first read the book. I imagine it was probably grade school. TKAM is a banned book - no surprise there - and as recently as 2011, the Office of Intellectual Freedom reported challenges against it. Throughout the book's history, it has mostly been banned in Middle America, but also in states like California and New Jersey, and even in Ontario, Canada.

In the wake of the recent news that an unpublished manuscript of TKAM author Harper Lee has been found and will be published later this year, I decided to revisit TKAM. I was going to write about the book and its legacy in a broad sense, until I saw that the film version was gonna be on TV and so I watched that again, too. I'll get to it later.

I had forgotten how much of a coming-of-age book TKAM is. For a long time, I had thought of it - and I imagine many people do as well - as a meditation on race through the eyes of a child, and it certainly is, but much space is devoted to Scout's world, rural Depression-era Alabama, which was inspired by Lee's own childhood. The case surrounding the Negro character, Tom Robinson, doesn't really get going for awhile, and after his fate is sealed, there's a good deal more to go before the finish. 

I admit, that kinda irked me a little bit, as if what happens to Tom doesn't matter in the ultimate scheme of things, but it's not his story. It's Scout's, and that's something I had to remind myself of on several occasions as I re-read the book. The civil rights movement, for instance, wasn't a thing in the time the story is set, but at the time Lee was writing it, it was alive and kicking, and part of me does kinda wish that the black characters in TKAM were a little more active... but it's easy to think that, over fifty years removed and after so many changes within society.

Then again, all that history shows us that some things never change. Though TKAM is a work of fiction, it is ridiculously easy to draw a straight line from Tom Robinson through Emmet Till to Rodney King and Eric Garner. Justice for a black man is still notoriously difficult to obtain in America, even today, and TKAM remains painfully relevant as a result.

As I re-read it, I also thought of Kathryn Stockett and The Help. Granted, these are two very different books, written from different perspectives in different time periods, but I wondered whether Lee would have gone through what Stockett went through if TKAM were released today? I suspect not: Lee doesn't attempt to speak for black people in any sense, an accusation that dogged Stockett during the successful run of her book. Though Atticus does tell Scout to try to step inside the shoes of another person in order to understand them, this applies as much to white characters like Boo Radley as to black characters.

In reading about the publishing history of TKAM, I couldn't help but think of my current struggle in trying to write a novel. Go Set a Watchman, the "new" Lee book, is actually an early version of TKAM that apparently reads more like a sequel now, since it features an adult Scout and a much older Atticus. (Shall we start speculating now on the cast for the inevitable movie? Anne Hathaway and Kevin Costner? Michelle Williams and Harrison Ford? Will Robert Duvall be involved?) Lee spent so much time writing and rewriting it, changing the flow and the narrative until it became what it became, and naturally she never expected it to succeed as wildly as it did.

Recently, I've hit a bad patch in my work in progress. My writing group came down kinda hard on a chapter I submitted for them to read, and I was bummed for awhile. Writing a novel is a huge leap of faith for one who has never done it before. You're investing a tremendous chunk of your time, your talent, and your faith in yourself on something that may never get anywhere, and even if it does, everyone will inevitably expect you to do it all over again. When I complained on Facebook about it, Vija advised me to think of Lee and to not take criticism personally. Just keep writing. That's what I'm gonna do, but damn, is it a scary prospect.

At this point, despite the huge demand for Watchman, we only have a general idea about how it compares to TKAM, and there has been speculation as to whether or not releasing it was Lee's idea at all. Even if it bombs, though, nothing can take away what she accomplished with TKAM.

Now, about that movie... 

I suspect that Gregory Peck probably clinched the Oscar on the strength of one scene. One excellent scene, but one scene nonetheless. That, and the fact that he was GREGORY PECK. I imagine one could make arguments either way for Peck or Peter O'Toole in Lawrence without ever reaching a satisfactory conclusion.

Some events are switched around, but it's a pretty faithful adaptation, with a number of scenes lifted verbatim from the book. I thought the trial played out better in the book, however. There's some stuff involving the Ewells that were left out of the film, which I would've liked to have seen. For instance, in the book, Mayella Ewell gets freaked out by Atticus upon taking the witness stand, after seeing him prove her father was left-handed. We don't see that in the film.

Neither book nor movie flinches in the use of the word nigger, nor should they. It's a bit shocking to see an innocent young girl ask whether or not her father's a nigger-lover, as it should be, but to omit the word would be to deny the reality of the world which Lee tried so hard to capture, one based directly on her own childhood in the American south during the Depression. I see so many works of art these days, in various media, that try to go for that same kind of truth yet pussyfoot around the word as if it were a landmine - and of course, you'll never see it in magazine or newspaper articles in an objective, clinical manner, one where it would provide some needed context. Individual artists of good will must do as their conscience dictates, but it bothers me that this is still a thing.

TKAM the movie still holds up. Not too long ago, I suggested that this would make a good movie to show on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Well, I can think of a much more appropriate one now, but it would still be nice if a movie like this aired on free TV on special occasions. It's the kind of film parents need to watch with their children - even if the marketing "geniuses" behind this poster didn't agree. (Seriously? A movie centered around children, with children RIGHT THERE ON THE POSTER, and it's still considered not suitable for them? Give me a king-sized break.)

One last thing: the previous owner of my copy of TKAM was someone named Alexandra Anglade, AKA "Alexandra the Great," as she wrote on that same first page. I actually looked her up on Facebook, but I got several different women by that name. If anyone out there knows her, ask her for me if she wants her book back!

Have I mentioned lately what an awesome artist Vija is?
Here's her portrait of Harper Lee.

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