“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
In 1993 reclusive Harper Lee emerged, Boo Radley-like, requesting that Mockingbird be spared introduction. She wrote “Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity. The only good thing about Introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose to come. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”
I agree. That’s also why I avoid movie trailers that now are so long and spoiler-laden they invariably ruin the experience.
In Mockingbird’s case however, the real threat is not an Introduction but rather the ubiquitous familiarity of both book and movie (a film rarity that actually does the book justice). Almost everyone has seen the movie, and the book syncs so closely it’s impossible to read without hearing Kim Stanley read it to you. Mrs. Stanley was the narrator of the movie and of course, the adult voice of Scout, from whose perspective the story is told.
Thankfully, Mockingbird not only endures, but improves along with the reader’s maturity. It can certainly be appreciated by the high school class upon which it is eternally imposed, but bring along some world weary wisdom, and the pages come alive. In a world of superlatives, it rightly was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by the Library Journal.
I read Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” simultaneously as comparative literature for contrasting perspective, and it was instructive. As Mockingbird is told through the voice of a grown white woman recalling her childhood experience in the segregated south, this story is likewise told by a grown black woman doing the same. Each story is about a child’s examination of prejudice, but Scout in Mockingbird is looking from the outside in while Angelou is deep inside, trying to make sense of the white world – almost as if from Plato’s cave, interpreting shadows.
Their similarities and learnings are as poignant as their differences.
“What sets one Southern town apart from another, or from a Northern town or hamlet, or city high-rise? The answer must be the experience shared between the unknowing majority (it) and the knowing minority (you). All of childhood’s unanswered questions must finally be passed back to the town and answered there. Heroes and bogey men, values and dislikes, are first encountered and labeled in that early environment. In later years they change faces, places and maybe races, tactics, intensities and goals, but beneath those penetrable masks they wear forever the stocking-capped faces of childhood.”
It’s all a world of double standards, and they are a fearful thing. They allow you to hold diametrically aligned but contrasting views in the cradle of your mind with no moral angst whatsoever. It takes children a while to get the hang of it, but not long. The problem, of course, is that we all are guilty and remedy requires a hard lonesome fight against the resolute crowd.
Revisionist history is as old as mankind and truth has always been canonized by the victors. In time, facts matter less and less until all that remains is the operationalized outcome. This plays even harder when rationalization smooths over moral inconveniences. Solidarity helps, and societies conspire to protect their mores, but miraculously the outliers manage to find their lonely voice. Folks like Atticus raise children who learn by their courageous example and the few take up the torch to move us inelegantly along.
Sometimes, thank God, they even write books.
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
D I G D E E P E R
U.S. novelist Harper Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. Lee studied law for four years at the University of Alabama and spent one year at Oxford University. In the 1950s she was an airline reservation clerk before leaving to devote her time to writing. In 1960 she wrote her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a story narrated by a young Southern girl whose attorney father is defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. In 1962 the book was adapted into a motion picture.
“Lee, Harper,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).