Saturday, July 10, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

I thought it might be fun to do a kind of running blog commentary on To Kill a Mockingbird, as we have come to the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. Theoretically, I am rereading this for  a big community book group we're going to have in about a week and a half, and I thought there would probably be plenty of grist for the mill here. For instance, I was surprised at the way the book starts, which I'll get to at the end of this post, just to give you time to test yourself on what you think it was.

I was still a child myself when I read TKaM, which probably explains why many of my impressions seem so sharp, when much that I've read since then seems vague. Of course, I saw the movie too, a few years later. It remains one of the few movies I can think of in which there seems no gap between the original text and the movie. The characters were exactly as I imagined them, or at least didn't violate any conception I had had of them. Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus and even Boo Radley were just as I had read them. Even the light seemed right.

Here are a few things I've found odd in the intervening years:

For the longest time, and in fact till the recent movie, Capote, I had the idea that Harper Lee had written this book and then more or less vanished from the face of the earth. I was shocked to learn that she was not a recluse shut up in some southern mansion, but had had a more or less constant presence in the New York literary scene. I was equally shocked to realize that Dill grew up to become Truman Capote. I'm still shocked when I think about that. When you read fiction, you don't really expect that the model of the childhood next door neighbor will grow up to become one of the era's leading literary lights. What are the odds? I remember hearing some rumor that Capote actually wrote TKaM, and though I haven't heard much about that since, in some ways it seems a great deal more plausible than the reality of two writers this quality growing up next door to each other.

When I read To Kill a Mockingbird in fifth or sixth grade, even though I read it on my own,  I remember feeling as though I was reading a 'classic'. It already had a kind of canonical status, although of course at that time I wouldn't have known what a canon was if it shot me. It is surprising to me that it had probably only been out for ten years or so. Ten years later is usually a very wavering period in a novel's life. Most bestsellers have died off by then and most classics have not yet been born--or I suppose I should say, reborn. But TKaM seems to have just chugged merrily along. Needless to say, these are just my impressions, not well-researched facts.

I still wonder why Lee didn't try her hand at another. Perhaps during this anniverary, I'll find that out.

Okay--how does To Kill a Mockingbird begin? I had always remembered it as beginning with the arrival of Dill into the lives of Scout and Jem. And that's almost right. But before that happens we are treated to the ancestry of the Finches and how they came to be in the place they are. And before that happens, we have the opening line:

"When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

The story is then ostensibly about how Jem came to break his elbow. Less ostensibly, it is also about how the lineage of the Finches, which has partaken in the primal sin of slavery in the past, comes to fulfill its destiny in the present.

Wonder how it's all going to work out?

*I'm editing this to add a link to Kathleen Kirk's current post, since, as seems to be often the case, we are once again on the same page. 


  1. OMG, I am about to write my daily blog about TKaM (as you abbreviate it), among another things! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I will link to you.

    I only recently heard that Capote rumor re:authorship and choose to discount it.

  2. That's pretty cool. I'll look for your blog post.

    Yeah, I choose to discount the Capote rumour as well. I don't mind if he helped her with editing, though.