Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Happy 50th Birthday "To Kill a Mockingbird"

This week, my blog entry is not about some new books or authors I would like to introduce you to but it is some personal thoughts about one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, which will "turn" 50 this coming Sunday. 

On July 11, 1960 Harper Lee published her only novel.  To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It was made into a movie, which I also love, in 1962, garnering Gregory Peck an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. However, it did not win Best Movie that year, something I'll never understand. While I love the grandeur and epic of Lawrence of Arabia, not to mention the young and gorgeous Peter O'Toole, To Kill a Mockingbird is a much better movie in my opinion and I think that Horton Foote's screenplay adaptation is one of the best translations of a book into a movie ever done.

I love this book and it had profound and lasting effect on me as a young person as it did many people.  Heck, it is even Oprah's favorite book.  To Kill a Mockingbird is on every list of best/favorite books that I have ever seen and Library Journal named it as the most influential work of fiction in the 20th Century. It is also famous (or notorious) for being one of the most challenged books of all times. I think that so many people love this book because it is so accessible - it's delightfully easy to read- and it contains humor. Unfortunately, humor is rare in the "great works" of literature - I think that William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, et al. would have vastly improved their work with just a little levity (as an aside, I love this quote by Nora Joyce to her husband James:  “Why don’t you write books people can read?"-she agrees with me!).  You can hardly beat the laugh-out-loud quality of the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where the kids were aiming at Ms. Maudie with a BB gun as she bent over in the garden. I can just picture it so clearly...

I think another large part of its appeal is that at its heart, To Kill a Mockingbird is a bildungsroman, a fancy schmancy literary word for a coming-of-age novel. Everyone can relate to the painful process of growing up, seeing a sibling leaving you behind, and finding out that a parent is fallible. I related to this book on many other personal levels, I saw Scout as a kindred spirit (to steal a term of another of my favorite literary heroines, Anne Shirley) who had so many things in common with me. Scout and I both were from small southern, bigoted, and rural farming towns; had a parent who died when we were young; were both tomboys with BB guns; did not fit in at school; were voracious readers (I suspected and believed she was at any rate); and she had lots of women (Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, and Miss Rachel) to help her figure out the world in her mother's absence, I had men in my life (favorite and my Grandpa Miller-who also strongly reminded me of Atticus) to help fill the void left by my father's death.

Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird, covers deeper and more important issues of racism, prejudice, justice, and how difficult and lonely it can be when you do the right thing even when it is unpopular and against the majority but for me its lasting appeal is the personal resonance and connection I feel.   As I got older and reread the book, which I think I read for the first time during the summer between my 5th and 6th grades because my Uncle Mike let me read his books-we had no public library, I got different things from it.  As I matured and built up my own store of life experience,  I related to Scout's dawning realization and education about how cruel and unfair the real world can be at times with no logic or reason.  Scout, like all of us had to (or at least on our good days) experience moving from the childhood bubble of protection and fantasy, those wonderful years of magical thinking,  before we are forced into the  stark world of adult realism. Every year when I reread this book, I find something new in it.  It is like visiting an old friend who you haven't seen in such a long time.  You get to rediscover just how wonderful that she is all over again.

Nell Harper Lee, who is still alive and a famous recluse, has been the subject of much interest and speculation since she withdrew, with a few notable exceptions, from the public eye in 1965. There was a recent biography of her, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles Shields, and it is an interesting and very enjoyable read in terms of many of the details about the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird but it does not shed a strong light on Harper Lee herself.   It covers the last 40 or so years, 1965 on, in just a few pages and you could find that  information on  Wikipedia. I did enjoy it though beause it did flesh out and shine a light on a few more aspects of the autobiographical aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Last of all, in a July 2006 "letter to the editor" to O Magazine, Lee once again gave voice to her strong beliefs in the importance of reading, books, and libraries.  It makes me love her more for singling out libraries during  a period where they are seen as obsolete and as luxuries.  Let me share the my favorite part of that letter: "Now 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something I remember it." Amen, Harper Lee.

So, next Sunday I am going to curl up with To Kill a Mockingbird and reread a book I still love and appreciate, as it only gets better with age (or as I age?).  Once a year, I get the  chance to visit my much younger self  and to remember that feeling of absolute exhilaration when I discovered a book and characters that absolutely transported me and took me completely into their world.  I am also thankful that the long ago me had books such as this growing up but to escape to so that I could  begin to imagine a much wider world than my small and limited one inside a couple of counties in Southern Illinois.   Have you ever had that feeling after you read that all things are possible?

Happy Reading and Happy Birthday Scout, Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, Dill, Boo Radley, Miss Maudie....

No comments:

Post a Comment