Thursday, July 8, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird turns 50

 image from publisher, Harper Collins

Every child fears the boogey man, real or imaginary. Whether an actual person or an simply an idea that sprouts in the imagination, the concept of a boogey man captures man's fear of the unknown. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird explores childhood fears in a coming of age story that engages readers to face the all-too-real adult fears that wear the face of prejudice, conceit and injustice.

The Washington Post review at the time of the novel's release referred to its moral impact: "A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance and an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere eighteen ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird." That impact multiplied exponentially when the book was made into film the following year and Gregory Peck received the Academy Award for best actor.

Today both the novel and the film exist as artifact to convey a timeless message to new readers and viewers unfamiliar with the historic context as well as the book's artistic excellence. Readers continue to benefit from fresh exposure.

Flannery O'Connor said, "We have to have stories. It takes a story to make a story. It takes a story of mythic dimensions; one which belongs to everybody; one in which everybody is able to recognize the hand of God and imagine its descent upon himself." Author Harper Lee wrote such a story and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1961. 

But not everyone agrees that the novel represents great literary art. Read here for a dissenting view Malcolm Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker. Or take a look at this 4-minute video clip from a new documentary by Mary Murphy or the USA Today article for sympathetic voices.

On Sunday, July 11, To Kill a Mockingbird turns 50. Boy, I would love to debate the literary merits of TKMB.

A story of belonging

The setting for To Kill a Mockingbird, Maycomb county Alabama, fixes the story in 1932 during the nation-wide depression where economic recovery was as sluggish as the days of childhood were long. The main character, Scout tells the story as an adult looking back on the privilege of an ordinary life, slow-motion-days, light refracting through a reverse-lens view––wistful memories merged with the author's adult understanding of innocence lost.

Paced over the course of two summers, a little more than a year's time, the story begins when Scout was six-years-old, ready to start school. Selected scenes set the stage for seismic upheaval brought about by the trial of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Scout's father, attorney Atticus Finch, agrees to defend the black man, Tom Robinson.

Single father Atticus––who both the children call by his first name––devotes himself to Scout and her brother Jem, four years older, whose mother had died when Scout was a baby. Family relationships invite readers to move closer to the warmth radiating from a home where Atticus educates his children while at the same time tries to shield them from adult evils.

To Kill a Mockingbird survives long past its contemporary audience because the story establishes icons of character, recurring social conflicts as well as a visionary quest for social justice. 

After the trial had been lost, a neighbor, Miss Maudie, said to Scout and Jem, "I simply want to tell you that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father's one of them." The American Film Institute (AFI) voted, Atticus Finch, portrayed by Gregory Peck, the number-one movie hero of all time.

The director of the movie, Bob Mulligan, said "The key to whole [story] is the point-of-view of children. The brilliance of Harper Lee is the creation of this world of children and their first contact with good and evil; having this fantasy father figure that all of us would like to have had, to guide us through this; to live on this street all of us would like to have lived, in a neighborhood--to belong."

Boo! Did I scare you?

Seemingly unrelated to the trial, a mystery-man outlines the story's shape when the children first got "the idea of making Boo Radley come out." Shadows of Boo Radley linger in the imagination of the children and reader alike until the end of the book.

To Kill a Mockingbird reminds readers how dark the heart of prejudice, how beguiling moral conceit that ignores a person's character, and how social injustice prevails when superficial differences distort people's judgment. This story personifies and magnifies human dignity.

But the real boogey man still lurks in our hearts.

No comments: