Tag Archives: Truman Capote

“To Kill a Mockingbird”: Great Book But Not a Great Novel?

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is perhaps the quintessential Book That Mattered: one of the moral touchstones of an entire generation.

It is a book that many of us Baby Boomers (and non-Baby Boomers) fondly recall reading in our younger years, many of us when we were still in high school.

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And yet, reading Mockingbird again after forty years or so . . . hate to say it . . . but it is not a great novel. Not even close. I’m not even sure it’s a very good novel. It’s a little too black and white, too unshaded, too stylistically uninventive to rank up there with the best novels of our time.

So we have a bit of a dilemma: here’s a book that many of us love and admire–but, when considered objectively, is not really a very impressive work of art.

How to solve it?

Let’s take a hint from Wallace Stevens and his great poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and consider To Kill a Mockingbird from a number of different perspectives. After all, as Atticus Finch continually reminds us in the novel, we should look at life from other viewpoints:

View #1: WhileTo Kill a Mockingbird” is Not a Great Novel–It Is a Great Book

There are some works of art that never gain much influence or importance in the wider world, that simply never reach or touch many people.

For all its purported greatness, for instance, how many people–even well-educated, well-read people–have actually been affected by Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake? (OK, show of hands, how many of us have actually made it past the first couple of pages?)

On the other hand, there are certain books that are important and influential, that matter to a great many people, that do much good in the world, but nevertheless are not enduring works of art. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin pops to mind.)

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those.

Lee’s novel was a crucial text for those of us coming of age in the Sixties and Seventies. The book taught us about racial tolerance and understanding, about seeing things from another’s perspective, about standing up for what is right–no matter what those around you believe or do.

So what if Mockingbird strikes us today as a little clunky, a little preachy, a little too pat to be considered high art: it may not be a great piece of literature, but it is indisputably a Book That Mattered.

I don’t think I’m being too hard on the book. Here’s just one example of the novel’s occasional ham-fistedness. Scout Finch’s third-grade teacher has been passionately criticizing Hitler and the Nazis for their treatment of the Jews in (pre-war) Germany. Scout asks her brother Jem about it:

“Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?”

“Why sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”

“She hates Hitler a lot . . .”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? . . .

“. . . Well, coming out of the courthouse that night . . . I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em [blacks] a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ turn around and be ugly about folks right at home–“

See what I mean? Not too subtle.

Despite all this, though, Mockingbird was an essential building block in my generation’s moral development. What would the Baby Boom generation be without To Kill a Mockingbird? What would any of us be without it?

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View #2: “Mockingbird” Was a Crucial Plea for Racial Justice at a Critical Time in Our History

Let’s not forget that the novel was published in 1960: on the cusp of the great civil rights upheavals that would roil the nation in the coming decade.

Suddenly, here was a best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize winning book that highlighted and questioned the racial hatred and hypocrisy of the Jim Crow South. Impossible to quantify the book’s precise influence, but it undoubtedly did some good. Probably a great deal of good.

And it was a courageous thing for a young white southern lady from Monroeville, Alabama (not exactly the epicenter of progressive racial attitudes back then) to write a book like this in a place like that.

Even though the novel is set in the Depression, its message was aimed directly at contemporary readers and the contemporary situation. It was undoubtedly the right book at the right time.

Here are Jem Finch and Miss Maudie (a neighbor of the Finches) discussing the guilty verdict that has been delivered against Tom Robinson, the innocent black man accused of raping a white girl. Jem has been lamenting the fact that no one in town (with the exception of Atticus, his father) was willing to stand up for Tom Robinson:

“Who in this town did one thing to help Tom Robinson, just who?”

“His colored friends for one thing, and people like us. People like Judge Taylor. People like Heck Tate. . . . .

“. . . I was sittin’ there on the porch last night, waiting. I waited and waited to see you all come down the sidewalk, and as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step–it’s just a baby-step, but it’s a step.”

View #3: It’s Best to Think of “Mockingbird” as a Young Adult Novel

I don’t believe the term, “young adult fiction” had become an official designation back in 1960. But maybe some of our dilemma about it’s not being a great work of fiction goes away if we just accept the fact that Mockingbird is really a “young adult novel.”

If we all agree that’s what it is, then many of the novel’s shortcomings–the stylistic straightforwardness, the black and white character depictions, the lack of nuance and shading that we would expect (even demand) in a novel aimed at adults–are ameliorated.

Of course! . . . it’s a novel for young people: teenagers, high school kids, freshman in college. Young adults need literature that is reassuring and morally unambiguous. In YA books characters can be (in fact, perhaps need to be) as clearly drawn and uncomplicated as possible: as purely evil as Bob Ewell, the white trash villain of the piece who tries to kill the two young Finch children, or as unabashedly heroic as Atticus Finch.

The novel never asks us for a minute to have more than one view of Atticus Finch:

“Have you ever thought about it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.”

Perhaps we should all just agree with Flannery O’Connor’s early evaluation of Mockingbird as a child’s book (I suspect that if the term “young adult novel” had been in vogue at the time, that’s the designation she would have used). Doing so takes some of the pressure off the book and some of the pressure off of us as readers:

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 are reading a child’s book. Somebody ought to say what it is.

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View #4: Atticus Finch is the Greatest Dad in All Literature.

Has there ever been a better literary dad than Atticus Finch? Even-tempered, articulate, understanding, morally irreproachable. The novel not only insists that Atticus is a great man, great father, great lawyer. He’s a great shot, too!

Which Scout Finch learns to her astonishment when (in her young eyes) boring, middle-aged Atticus calmly shoots down a mad dog with dead-eye precision–even though Atticus adamantly refuses to own or carry a gun:

Miss Maudie grinned wickedly. “Well now, Miss Jean Louise,” she said, “still think your father can’t do anything? Still ashamed of him?

“Nome,” I said meekly.

“Forgot to tell you the other day . . . Atticus Finch was the deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time. . . . . didn’t you know his nickname was Ol’ One-Shot when he was a boy?”

It’s no coincidence that Gregory Peck–who won an Academy Award for playing Atticus in the 1962 film version of Mockingbird (has there ever been a more inspired casting choice?)–was the spitting image of Clark Kent.

Because, no doubt about it, Atticus was Super-Dad. He seamlessly joined the pantheon of great dads from the Fifties and Sixties: Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best, Ozzie Nelson in Ozzie and Harriet, Ward Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver. But with a moral authority and heroic stoicism that even this group couldn’t match.

Unlike my own father, Atticus never raised his voice, lost his cool, or flew off the handle. He was never too tired after coming home from work to provide his children with a reassuring bromide or two.

He was the ideal dad we all yearned for. Oh, how I envied Scout:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–”

“Sir?”

“–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

[Of course, I would eventually realize that a blue collar guy like my German immigrant dad–who worked seven days a week, came home exhausted and drenched in sweat and grease from his mechanic’s job, and somehow managed to send five kids through college–was the real hero. But back then, I would have swapped my earthy, heavily-accented dad for white-collar, smooth-talking Atticus in a heartbeat.]

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View #5: “Mockingbird” Perfectly Captures the Rhythms of Childhood

As I was re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, it struck me that the novel is really a kind of extended hymn to childhood.

The novel captures the feeling of being a child, of long, seemingly endless summer days, and of trying to fill them up with adventures and story-telling and role-playing. The Boo Radley subplot is really the stuff of childhood imagination, of kids with lots of time on their hands and nary an adult in sight.

Here is Lee’s wonderful description of fictional Maycomb, Alabama:

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.

My favorite character in the novel is Dill, the pint-sized but imaginative and fearless friend who visits Maycomb each summer. I didn’t realize it when I first read the novel, but the character was patterned after Lee’s real-life childhood friend and eventual literary mentor, Truman Capote.

Here Scout and Jem meet Dill for the first time. Listen to how perfectly Harper Lee captures the rhythms and odd cadences of childhood interactions:

We went down to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy–Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting–instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:

“Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” said Jem pleasantly.

“I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said, “I can read.”

“So what?” I said.

“I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin’ I can do it . . .”

View #6: “To Kill a Mockingbird” is Well Worth a Read (or Re-Read)

I don’t know why Harper Lee essentially stopped writing after To Kill a Mockingbird. (It was the only book she ever published.) She was also famously reticent about being interviewed or publically discussing the novel. Perhaps she had said all she had to say. Perhaps she realized that she would never again be able to write a book so pure and noble in its intentions.

Reading Mockingbird after all these years is like drinking from a crystal-clear Alabama mountain spring: pure, undiluted, unclouded, not the most complex or sophisticated of drinks . . . but oh so good for you.

 

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Top Ten Titles From the Golden Age of Journalism

A funny thing happened as I’ve been reading and preparing to write about Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) for my next Books That Mattered postI was suddenly flooded with memories of the great works of journalism that were emerging–in a seeming avalanche–in the Sixties and Seventies when many of us Baby Boomers were hitting our formative years.

We were living in the golden age of print journalism. We just didn’t know it.

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I vividly remember taking a college writing course and reading Gay Talese’s classic essay, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (Esquire, 1966). It was a revelation that a piece of magazine writing–and in a lowly genre like the celebrity profile, no less–could have such spark, tension, style, life. It gave us a glimpse into a major celebrity in a way that no by-the-numbers profile had ever done before. (And darn few have since.)

And that was just an early shining example of something marvelous that was beginning to sprout and take root in the mid-Sixties. For the next fifteen years or so–right up to the end of the Seventies–writers of all stripes were destined to push the boundaries of news writing and journalism.

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“Literature is news that stays news.” That’s been the rule-of-thumb for distinguishing between the ultimately disposable (however commendable and well-written) news of the day versus the lofty peaks of (big L) Literature.

But something odd and unique happened to journalism in this time period: it aspired to be more than something ephemeral, disposable, with a strict sell-by date. Writers like Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and other chroniclers of their times were knocking on the doors of Literature. Some (like Thompson and his “Gonzo Journalism”) seemed intent on smashing the damn doors to pieces.

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And so the golden age of journalism came about. Of course, not all the practioners of the “New Journalism” (Tom Wolfe coined the term) were equally conscientious or skillful. But the top writers did so with a verve and passion and intensity that we’ve rarely seen since.

Here, then, are the top books of journalism from that golden age. And these are not just books for those interested in Baby Boomer nostalgia: these are books that are well worth reading for anyone–no matter what age–who loves the written word, who loves a well-crafted scene, who loves books that manage to capture the tenor of their times. These books are alive, man.

THE TOP TEN “NEW JOURNALISM” BOOKS

Truman Capote

  • In Cold Blood (1965)

Norman Mailer

  • The Armies of the Night (1968)
  • Of a Fire on the Moon (1970)

Tom Wolfe

  • The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
  • The Right Stuff (1979)

Hunter S. Thompson

  • The Hells Angels (1967)
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972)

Joan Didion

  • Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968)
  • The White Album (1979)

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I’ll be writing more specifically about these books in upcoming posts, but for now would like to say a big Thank You to these splendid writers for their often brave, sometimes quirky, always thrilling explorations into the outer limits of print journalism.

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Three Tales to Share This Christmas

It’s a damp, drizzly December out there. Christmas is two days away, though it doesn’t feel like it. It’s an unseasonable 68 degrees here in New Jersey with a tropical heaviness to the air. I must admit, I woke up this morning feeling a bit grinchy.

As I was sitting at my desk this morning, however, I had a sudden Christmas memory that managed to get me back into the Christmas spirit.

It’s actually a few memories from back in the early Eighties. My wife and I had just bought a little brick house (where we still live). For the first time in our marriage we had a working fireplace (yeah!!!) and would be able to set up a beautiful tree in the living room.

Due to a lack of college teaching jobs, I had recently left the Ph.D. program in English at Rutgers University for a job at a big advertising agency in New York City. Some of my best friends from the English Department would eventually move away to greener pastures . . . Wisconsin, back to California, up to New England. Away. But for a few years around this time, we were still all living in the same geographic area, still able to get together for our annual Christmas celebrations.

I have fond memories of getting together with my English Department friends and other assorted kindred spirits. After singing carols we would sit in a big circle and read aloud a Christmas story. Haven’t thought about that in so long. But I can still recall the fire crackling in the background as we read.

I know what you’re thinking . . . adults sitting around reading stories? Where are we, in a Victorian novel? But we actually used to do that. It was incredibly fun and moving and so Christmassy.

So what did we read back in the day? Three stories stick in my mind.

Two are children’s books written by Russell Hoban (and illustrated by his then-wife Lillian Hoban): The Mole Family’s Christmas (1969)  and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1971).

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These are two wonderful little stories that are chockfull of Christmas spirit, and are perfect for reading aloud. The Hobans are masters at creating these wonderfully quirky and believable little characters.

I can still recall how funny my friend Jack was at catching the folksy quality of Emmet’s and Mrs. Otter’s voices. (The story was made into a marvelous 1978 television production by Jim Henson–but don’t settle for just watching it on DVD. A good old-fashioned read-around is still the recommended way to experience this Christmas classic.)

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The Mole Family’s Christmas may not be as well known as Emmet Otter, but it is an equally wonderful tale. Delver Mole is, of course, near-sighted and can’t see the stars that he’s heard so much about. He writes the “fat man in the red suit” for a telescope, and after some close-calls with a scary owl, everything turns out OK:

So that was the Mole family’s first Christmas, and they were very pleased with it. On top of the chimney they made an owlproof observatory out of an upside-down flower pot, and then they were able to look at the stars in perfect comfort. “I think Delver did very well to find out about Christmas as he did,” said Emma.

“Yes,” said Harley, “you never can tell what will happen when a boy like Delver puts his mind to something. Here am I, who never expected to see a single star, looking at all of them. I call that impressive.”

“It really is like singing, the way they glimmer and shine,” said Delver.

Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Story” (1956) is a bit tougher to read aloud, longer, sadder, and not so kid-friendly. But it is well worth the effort.

It’s such a great story. If you don’t know it, run out right now and get a copy. I mean right now. The story has been anthologized in several collections and there are a couple of nice stand-alone editions. (My favorite is the 1989 edition illustrated by Beth Peck.)

I remember sitting around the fire as we read about seven-year-old Buddy and his elderly aunt (two best friends) getting ready for Christmas in depression-era Alabama. Preparing fruitcakes, chopping down a Christmas tree, and making each other kites for Christmas (neither has the money to buy the other what they really would like to.) The autobiographical tale is by turns funny, touching, poignant.

a christmas memory

As we sat by the fire, Susan, my wife, read the final paragraphs. There was not a dry eye in the house as she finished:

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. . . . For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me “the best of the batch.” . . . But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather.”

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

So as a Christmas present to yourself, read these three wonderful little Christmas tales. And as an extra-special treat, read them aloud with friends, family, loved ones. Might be the best present we all receive this Christmas.

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