Thursday, July 01, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird Under Attack

Ed here: Jesse Kornbluth is one of my favorite writers. Like him I've noticed of late a number of attacks on the novel and movie To Kill A Mockingbird. To be honest I didn't give any of them much thought--the writers seemed very angry and very political--but Jesse has and in his Huffington Post post he elaborates on his thoughts. These graphs are from the middle of the piece. He begins by talking about all the things that dismay him today, things he never thought would come to pass. Then he addresses Mockingbird.

Jesse Kornbluth:

But then I never thought I'd see the day when "To Kill A Mockingbird" --- a novel that has inspired readers for half a century --- would be derided as a book about "the limitations of liberalism" (by Malcolm Gladwell, no less, in The New Yorker, of all places) and "a sugar-coated myth of Alabama's past" with a hero who's "a repository of cracker-barrel epigrams" (by Allen Barra, in the Wall Street Journal)

But as we approach July 11th --- the 50th anniversary of the publication of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (to buy the paperback from Amazon, click here; shamefully, there is no Kindle edition) --- it's probably not surprising that we're seeing one of America's best-loved books criticized for its "politics."

And it's definitely no surprise that the downgrading is done by men.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a woman's book.

Written by a woman, Harper Lee, but more, written by a woman who dared to see herself as her region's Jane Austen. Told by a six-year-old girl. With a hero who's not, in any traditional sense, manly. With a message of kindness and empathy generally associated with female values.


And one more female value, once common in the heroes of Western movies, but less and less common by the time Harper Lee wrote her novel --- a willingness to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Readers often forget, but this is the foundation of the character of Atticus Finch: He takes on the legal defense of an African-American, knowing he can't prevail in court.

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand," he tells his children. "It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

I'm not one for stereotyping, but how many men do you know who step up to confront unpleasantness and conflict? Here's Atticus: "Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open."

Atticus Finch is --- let's just say it --- a feminized man who appeared a decade before America started hearing about feminism. No wonder he appeals to English teachers, who tend to be idealists. And no wonder the film is a "family" favorite --- mother choose it in the hope it will make their kids kinder. (To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.)

In the long clock of history, we stopped killing each other over resources only a moment ago. Since then, we make progress, we take a step backward --- civilization is a recent, fragile concept. But I take it as an unvarnished Good Thing that readers have persistently loved "To Kill a Mockingbird" for as long as it's been in print. I think it's just great that Mary Murphy has written a book about Harper Lee's book: "Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of 50 Years of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'" (To buy the book of "Scout, Atticus & Boo," click here. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.)

And it pleases me no end that, in a year when men denigrate Thurgood Marshall and get off on carrying guns in public and blame the poor for every failing of men in expensive suits, that some of the most passionate defenders of a book you'd think needs no defense are male.


Unknown said...

I'm not a critic. All I know is that I read the book in its first paperback edition and was bowled over. Loved it then, and still do.

Brian Drake said...

The only thing I would disagree with is Kornbluth's idea that Finch is a feminized male. If Finch is a woman with man parts than so is Philip Marlowe and I don't think anybody would agree with that, and I would suggest that if asked, Marlowe would indeed agree that you do the right thing even when you know you're licked.

I think she showed a different side of the tough guy. You don't need a .44 Magnum to be tough, as most of us in the real world realize, but that's what the masses like to see. Perhaps that's the problem.

As for the current crop of critics.... well, I'm sure we'll see a boost in book sales as a new generation of readers looks to see what the fuss is all about.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, Atticus was a good shot, which was shown in the chapter with the bear. But that's really irrelevant to this kind of idiotic writing.

The only way a book really becomes timeless and a true classic is if there's a little industry of critics who hate it (and love themselves for taking a stand). So like Huck Finn, Moby Dick and everything else of real lasting value, it's being criticized for the shortcomings of a few of its readers

Dan Luft

Ron Scheer said...

Gladwell may have been objecting in part to the acquiescence of the black community and the respect they pay Atticus as a supposed stand-in for a Hollywood liberal. I don't agree, but after a couple decades of political correctness, I can seee how it seems like a weak spot in the narrative.

I also disagree with the "feminized male" description of Atticus. The women who plead for reason in westerns are usually there to show the "weakness" of that attitude in the face of lawlessness and evil. But it's a powerful scene in a western when a man stands up to lynch mob (e.g., Henry Fonda in Warlock). You could as easilly say that Atticus is a fully realized male.