Tag Archives: Harper Lee

Re-reading a Classic: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Today in Minnesota, our weather resembles an Alabama summer day. The Finches would recognize this kind of weather and the storms that follow it. While re-reading Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird recently, I was aware of the weather that she described, especially during the summer. They didn’t have air conditioning in 1935 in Alabama. No one moved very fast when the sun floated high in the summer sky, the temperature was north of 90, and the humidity interfered with normal evaporation. But children seem unaffected by weather extremes, especially the children in Lee’s novel.

The first time I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I was only a little older than Scout Finch. At that time, I was also under the influence of the movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. We had gone as a family to see the movie, and afterward my parents allowed me to read the novel, one of the first adult novels I’d read. In my young mind, I wanted Atticus to be my father, Jem my brother, and I wanted to be Scout. As a family we talked about the movie, but I didn’t talk about the book with anyone. Talking about it could dilute its power I thought.

Reading Lee’s novel as an adult and a writer is a much different experience.  From the first sentence I was acutely aware of the distinctive narrative voice Lee created to tell this story. I knew immediately that it was an adult Scout although there is no clue as to how old she is when she’s telling the story. There’s also no clue as to her audience. So it is as if she’s speaking directly to me as the reader. This technique was pure brilliance for this particular story. It gave Lee the opportunity to scrutinize the adult world of that time and place through an intelligent child’s eyes, one sensitive to her brother’s moods and curious about everything and everyone. Jean Louise, “Scout,” Finch is by far one of those memorable characters that can follow a reader for years after completing the novel.

Atticus is another. Far from perfect — and Scout notes his imperfections when she notices them — he’s a man who’s a single father at a time that would have been unusual, and he doesn’t seem to have any plans to marry again anytime soon. This was something I loved about him this time around. He stands up to his sister and anyone else who would try to tell him how to lead his life or suggest that it was time he marry again. And I loved the way he defended Calpurnia — the only mother Scout had ever known — as well as treated her with the utmost respect. When I was a kid, I thought Atticus was about as far different from my own father as any two people could get. But on this reading, I realized that they actually shared a similar philosophy about relating to others. With my father, that philosophy actually hid his deep prejudices from public view.

My favorite scenes in this book have followed me from childhood until now. The first is the scene of a conversation Scout has with Atticus on their front porch in the evening of a day that has been particularly trying for Scout at school. Atticus explains to Scout the notion of empathy — imagining yourself in another person’s skin and his life to understand his point of view better. Another is the extended scene of the mad dog when Calpurnia calls Atticus home to deal with it and how surprised Scout and Jem are at their father’s hidden talent. You can live with someone and still not know everything about him or her. The scene in front of the jail at midnight when Atticus guards Tom Robinson from a potential lynch mob, and Scout, Jem, and Dill show up to protect Atticus. The school scene when the children are back in school after Tom Robinson’s trial and Cecil Jacobs does a current events report on Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in Germany. The teacher, without a hint of irony, explains to the class that it’s wrong to persecute the Jews and it would not happen in America because America is a democracy, and the persecution comes from being prejudiced against the Jews, and just how wrong it is to be prejudiced against anyone in America because America is a democracy. What a sly writer Harper Lee was! And to this day, I still see a very young Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, standing in the corner of Jem’s room.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons via MGN

Harper Lee’s writing inspired me to work hard at my own writing during the last two weeks. It has made me take special notice of the narrative voice I’ve chosen for different pieces, and how I’ve created the tone of the work. It’s made me think about how she accomplished the scenes she included and why she structured them the way she did. But the most important effect of this novel on me from this reading is feeling a kinship with Harper Lee as a writer, understanding what she probably went through during the writing process, and admiring and respecting this inspiring novel all the more.

Harper Lee

Language and movies entered my life about the same time when I was a child.  I loved books and reading.  I loved stories.  Movies also were stories, magical and special in a darkened theater, preceded by funny cartoons.  My parents took us to adult movies if they thought the subject matter was important.  I remember that in one year, they took us to see Lawrence of Arabia (historical) and To Kill a Mockingbird (social history).  My response to both was instant love and a desire to read the books.  My father owned a first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom that he gave to me.  In the living room bookshelves, I found To Kill a Mockingbird and first learned the author’s name: Harper Lee.

To_Kill_a_Mockingbird book cover

The news last Friday of Harper Lee’s death brought back the first time I held her masterwork and the hours I spent reading it the first time.  Her prose evoked the South during a time unfamiliar to me and yet easy to visualize in my mind.  Over the years, I’ve learned more about Ms. Lee, facts that surprised me at times and facts that inspired me.  It pained me that she had stopped writing when she had shown so much talent in her first novel.  Her friendship with Truman Capote astonished me until I learned that they had met as children, and had been best buddies.  Her portrayal of Dill, the character in Mockingbird based on Capote, was loving and real.  I loved him as much as Scout, Jem, and Atticus.

I wanted to be Scout.  She was fearless in her own way and in her convictions.  She stood up for what she believed in.  And her father was Atticus Finch.  What a father!  Ms. Lee painted such a vivid picture of these characters and their lives, their interests and concerns.  All while confronting racism head on through the trial in which Atticus defended Tom Robinson.  I think now what truly resonates about the characters in this book is that each reader can probably recognize each character as someone he or she knows in his or her own life.

In Cold Blood book cover originalLater in Junior High, I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  This book fascinated me — a nonfiction story written using fiction techniques.  At the time, I didn’t know that Capote was Dill, or that Capote and Lee were good friends, or that she assisted him when he was researching his book.  It was a scary story, actually, written with an eerie power, putting the reader right inside the scene as if a participant.  I’ve read some short fiction by Capote since then, but nothing else.

In 2005 I saw the movie Capote, about Capote discovering the story and writing In Cold Blood.  That’s when I learned about the enduring friendship between Capote and Lee.  How sad she must have been when Capote died in 1984, a victim of liver disease most likely caused by his own excesses.  But I was also surprised by her loyalty to him despite the way he apparently treated her because of his narcissism.  She must have known him better than anyone else except perhaps Capote’s partner, Jack Dunphy.

Now, Ms. Lee has slipped away to literary Heaven — I can’t imagine her going anywhere else.  I’d like to think that she and Capote have reunited and are exchanging stories, getting caught up.

Photo credit: The Truman Capote Literary Trust via The New York Public Library

Photo credit: The Truman Capote Literary Trust via The New York Public Library

The Voice

On television, “The Voice” seeks to identify the next big singer in pop music.  The “auditions” proceed with the judges’ backs turned to the stage so that each singer’s physical appearance has no influence.  It’s all about the quality and sound of the voice.  In fiction, it’s all about the quality and sound of the voice, too.  Book reviews often comment on a writer’s voice — unique, fresh, original, new are some of the words used to describe it.  But, I mean really, what is “voice” in fiction?

It’s not style.  I think of style as the way a writer uses words, which words, and how a writer strings them together.  A nineteenth century writer’s style looks dense with words to us today until you consider that during that century, books offered entertainment for them and they had few sources of entertainment.  The novel represented their version of a soap opera, with many characters, situations, twists and turns, digressions and loops.  I sometimes think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels as the last nineteenth century novels even though he wrote them in the twentieth century.  Today, television and movies can influence writing style, breaking a story into scenes and creating an episodic or pointillistic effect.  Short attention spans and a plethora of entertainment options have also influenced contemporary writing style.  Every word has to count.  Minimal description.  No digressions, please.

So, if it’s not style, what is voice?  Is it one of those things you know when you read it but is otherwise elusive?  Or can it be defined?

When I think of voice, I think of first pages.  The first page of a novel must have the power to draw a reader into the story, especially readers who may only be curious and not particularly interested — think of someone browsing in a bookstore.  That power is voice.  Think of the last time you picked up a novel you knew nothing about, started reading, and hours later discovered that you’d lost track of time because of it.  That’s the power of voice.  Voice has confidence, energy, sound, rhythm and individuality that piques your interest.

Let’s take an example, the opening paragraph of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.  When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.  His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh.  He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.”

What is it that pulls us into this paragraph?  Try reading it out loud.  What does it sound like?  To me, it sounds like an adult looking back on a childhood incident and how it affected someone close to her that she loves.  To her, his injury and how it healed is more important than the actual incident, and yet the mystery of the incident draws us in.  Her tone is one of sharing a confidence, something interesting about her family.  We can relate to that.  In the subsequent paragraphs, Lee delays any mention of the actual incident.  Instead, she goes on about how they argued about where it all began, i.e. what led up to the incident that injured Jem.  She unfolds the story in the way someone might tell a story at a family reunion, sitting in the kitchen late at night, telling someone, finally, how Jem broke his arm when he was thirteen.

Style contributes to voice.  However, you can have a piece of writing that is grammatically correct, with active verbs and colorful language, but a dead voice.  So, voice is not only about the writing, but also the speaking.  By that I mean, how people speak in different situations, especially when they are telling stories.  The voice needs to fit the story, the point of view, and behind that suitability stands a sense of confidence, a resonance of life and energy that comes from the writer.  I think of it as the connection the writer has with the writing, that connection breathing life into it.

A good resource for writing that devotes two chapters to voice is Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process.  I’ve dragged out my copy recently because I’m thinking of applying “voice” to a series of essays I have in mind.  One of the things I’ve learned about writing fiction that I also apply to my nonfiction is reading the piece out loud.  It helps immeasurably to hear what the prose sounds like and that’s about voice.

American Fiction

As I was listening to a Minnesota Orchestra concert broadcast recently, a concert primarily of American music, I learned that when Osmo Vanska took the position of music director he began looking for American classical music to program.  He’s taken the orchestra’s Composer Institute to new heights, nurturing up-and-coming composers.  But I had not known that he’d purposefully begun a search for American classical music to conduct on subscription concerts.  I was impressed.  And pleased.  That evening, the orchestra performed works by Jennifer Higdon and Howard Hanson.

What American fiction would I recommend enthusiastically to a non-American?  (Besides my own, of course.)  I started thinking of classic American fiction, but then wondered what criteria I needed to use for my recommendations.  That the novel is written by an American or that it also conveys some truth or insight into Americans and their lives?

The first novel that popped into my mind was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Set in 1930’s Alabama, this story reveals two sides of American prejudice — the racist side and the non-racist — as seen through the eyes of a young girl, Scout Finch, during one memorable summer.  Scout’s voice questions, observes, and states in a powerful cadence.  The story endures and entertains.

After that, I was stumped until I thought of recommending only fiction I’d read myself.  This eliminates John Updike, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth from my list, which doesn’t mean these guys aren’t worth reading, but only that I’m not comfortable putting them on my list because I haven’t read them.

I’ve read Madison Smartt Bell, though, and I’d highly recommend his work, especially The Year of Silence,  a story of a suicide, which sounds depressing but it’s not.  I thought of this story when I read it as a main character and her life in the middle of a series of concentric circles of other characters and their lives.  Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier for a lyrical path into life and love in the Civil War South.  The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner who wrote truths about the way we classify each other in our “classless” society.  Staggerford by Jon Hassler for a glimpse at life in Minnesota and American small towns.  Willa Cather’s My Antonia for life on the prairie in the 19th century.  Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for the horrors of a carnival in small town America — this book scared me more than anything else I’ve read whether in the horror genre or not.  Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, which explore human rights.

I started to feel guilty about not including Roth, Bellow and Updike, so I turned to Ernest Hemingway whom I think of as a muscular American writer.  He explored the American abroad but my favorite Hemingway novel is The Old Man and the Sea.  Of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which I’ve read four or five times in my life, but I’d personally recommend by the same author Tender is the Night.  And then there’s Edith Wharton whose powerful character-driven stories, such as Ethan Frome or The Age of Innocence, offer portraits of a specific time and place created by the people inhabiting them.

One American writer focused on the dark side of human experience and behavior, revealing American character in criminality.  I absolutely love Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and recommend The Talented Mr. Ripley to open the door to Tom Ripley’s world.  These novels have inspired me quite a lot as I’ve  worked on my Perceval novels.   Evan Quinn owes a lot to Tom Ripley.

Lastly, the American short story: Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates, A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, and A Gravestone Made of Wheat by Will Weaver…..