Over at Grumpy Old Bookman, the crusty curmudgeon brushes off To Kill A Mockingbird like so:
Some forty-plus years have passed since I read it, but I seem to remember finding it just a bit too politically correct for my taste (though we didn't use that expression then), and a bit too cutesy and twee. I never took to it.
Most other people did take to it, however. It was the right book in the right place at the right time.
I have a horrid suspicion that one of the reasons why Mockingbird has continued to sell is that it is on the reading lists of many a US (and probably UK) Eng Lit course.
The occasion for the dissing is a mention of Charles J. Shields' unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, the author of Mockingbird.
GOB's underlying concern seems to be to morph Mockingbird into a Black Swan, for which click here. Fair enough.
But GOB, you've done Miss Lee wrong, and to demonstrate why, I'll share a story.
A few years ago I taught ninth-grade "Eng Lit." In our state they call it "World Literature." My students were a bunch of freshly-minted adolescents: ungrateful, immature, self-satisfied, armpit-stinky, and occasionally, a grand joy to teach.
My ninth-graders went crazy over only two works that year: Twelfth Night, and Mockingbird. Everything else, from Animal Farm to Gilgamesh to classical Japanese haiku, they could have taken or left.
Their most beloved assignment that year was to make a "memory box" for Mockingbird: a shoebox that was filled on the inside-- and decorated on the outside-- with whatever scraps or pieces that spurred a memory for them of Lee's novel. I will never forget the love and care they took to make those boxes, the pride with which they described them-- and the deep joy with which they remembered every silly, funny, scary or profound moment in Mockingbird.
There are plenty of other reasons why this novel has endured-- among them that it sticks its finger inside the nail-holes of the American experience-- but for my money, the only one that matters is that forty-plus years removed from its immediate context, it can transform a bunch of premature cynics into true believers, just by the power of imagination and language.
Not just the right book in the right place at the right time. A great novel, full stop.
Photo: Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, in Capote.