Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 30, 2008

Mockingbird: Exploring the Soul of a Nation

1960 was a banner year. For one thing, it featured the election of John F. Kennedy. But earlier in the year, another new star appeared in the literary heavens: Miss Harper Lee, author of the soon-to-be classic ~To Kill a Mockingbird~ .

The book reads like a starter’s pistol for the soul-searching of the Sixties, after the restorative nap that was the Eisenhower era. Whatever national “innocence” we had enjoyed — about Cold War politics, race, sexuality, even basic ethics — all was whittled away throughout the Sixties, Just as Scout and Jem came of age in the novel, so too did our United States come of age in the Kennedy years (including Bobby’s rise and fall). A “trial” –whether one is speaking literally or figuratively– will do that to a person.

I’m reading the book for the first time this week. Shocking, I know, that I hadn’t read it yet. I just never got around to it, and never was steered toward it in any formal classes. Plus, I must admit it’s one case where I succumbed to using the modern non-reader’s excuse: I saw the movie.

It’s a shame, really, that no one pressed me to read it before now. (Except Chicago mayor Richard Daley, in the inaugural year of the One City/One Book campaign). I should have taught it to my American Lit high schoolers, way back when, … instead of spending so long on the dry, overwrought prose of ~The Scarlet Letter~.

I’m only 75 pages into it, but that’s far enough to notice a few traits that make it an important work. For one thing, it’s unexpectedly funny. The humor is subtle, in a smart, Southern, feminine-but-flinty way I had previously only seen in the work of Flannery O’Connor (an all-time fave). There’s a steady sense of the wise woman behind the text, winking, introducing me to some of her beloved local townies. “Look what beautiful fools we all are,” she’s saying. “And not just us… you too, dear.”

Tomorrow: religious & political winks & nudges, from Ms. Lee

The rel


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