Tuesday, July 06, 2010

To Kill The Critics: Keep Your Cotton Pickin' Hands Off Of 'Mockingbird'


I suppose that it was inevitable in our fractious, snark-heavy society that even a wonderful classic like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is coming in for criticism as the 50th anniversary of its publication is celebrated this month, but I for one am royally pissed off.

Along with J.D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye, Mockingbird was the most influential book of a youth filled with reading. And along with The Big Lebowski, the movie version of Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck is one of my two favorite movies evah.

I have read Mockingbird perhaps four times. But if you are Mockingbird impaired, here's a quick plot summary minus plot spoilers:

Six-year-old narrator Scout Finch lives with her older brother Jem and widowed lawyer father Atticus in a fictional Alabama town during the Great Depression. "Boo" Radley, a recluse who lives next door, alternately fascinates and horrifies the children and their friend Dill, and the three plot how to get him out of the house. For his part, Boo leaves them small gifts like a pocket watch and thread in a tree but doesn't appear in person.

Atticus is appointed by the local court to defend a black man named Tom Robinson who is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman. Although many of the town's citizens disapprove, Atticus agrees to defend Tom. Taunts that his children's father is a "nigger lover" escalate into a lynch mob that is shamed into dispersing by the children.

Because Atticus does not want them to be present at trial, Scout, Jem, and Dill watch in secret from the colored balcony. He establishes that Mayella and her father have lied and that the lonely Mayella made sexual advances toward Tom . . .

* * * * *
To Kill a Mockingbird more than earned the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and is considered the most widely read book dealing with race in America, while Atticus has to be the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.

Lee wrote with a warmth and humor despite the serious issues Mockingbird explores, which in addition to racial injustice include rape, gender, class, the destruction of innocence and the integrity of lawyers.

Typical of the 50th anniversary critics is Malcolm Gladwell, who nit-picked Lee's masterpeice (which in fact is the only book that she ever published) in the New Yorker, whining that that Atticus' explanation to Scout of the Ku Klux Klan was simplistic:

"Finch does not want to deal with the existence of antisemitism. He wants to believe in the fantasy of Sam Levy down the street, giving the Klan a good scolding."

Yeah, and if the explanation had been about rape, should he have discussed vaginal penetration with a mere six-year-old?

As Hadley Freeman notes in The Guardian, much of the carping is sour grapes because Lee has doggedly remained a recluse practically since the publication of Mockingbird and therefore has hurt the massive egos of the critics who expect her to open the door of her Mississippi home to them.

So screw the critics, I'm with Harper.

1 comment:

Labrys said...

Yes, screw the critics. Everyone knows that those who cannot "do" sit on the sidelines and bitch about the work of those who can do!

Just how deep an explanation should a small child have? Dippy critics.