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To Kill a Mockingbird, Again

4:00 PM, Oct 26, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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A few months ago the Wall Street Journal ran a splendid essay by Allen Barra that could only be described as therapeutic. Entitled “What ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Isn’t,” it was a calm, clear-headed, even humorous, evisceration of a novel that seems to be universally admired, required reading in every classroom--and a sickening repository of every enlightened cliché about American life, with particular emphasis on the segregated South. To add insult to injury, the mediocre 1960 novel was transformed into a popular/beloved 1962 movie distinguished for its painful epigrams spoken by Gregory Peck at his lugubrious worst--“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”—and a procession of stock characters (noble black victim, vicious white racist,  spunky/precocious tomboy) that prompted Pauline Kael to call TKAM “part eerie Southern gothic and part Hollywood self-congratulation for its enlightened racial attitudes.”

To Kill a Mockingbird, Again

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As if on cue, along comes Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ It is worth noting that the author, Mary McDonagh Murphy, is a producer of PBS documentaries, not a student of literature, and that the rogues’ gallery of witnesses she assembles to interview—Rosanne Cash, Jon Meacham, Oprah Winfrey, Rick Bragg etc.--share the same amateur status. To be sure, a few novelists are called upon to testify, but they are novelists--James Patterson, Scott Turow, Anna Quindlen—more in the Harper Lee than, say, the William Faulkner tradition.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw recounts the electrifying effect of TKAM on his undergraduate self—“I had always been interested in race and racial justice”—and Oprah Winfrey describes what it meant when she asked Harper Lee to appear on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and was refused: “She will be one of those people, like Jackie Onassis, who I also had wanted to interview, who told me no, and I honor that.” Like Tom Brokaw, everyone here finds their views conveniently validated by TKAM, and like Oprah, consider the novel/movie to be enduring ideals, like Jackie Onassis.

One of the interesting features of this curious volume is the totemic value of the reticent Harper Lee to certain people. Rick Bragg, the New York Times fabulist, reports that “I’ve been told that Harper Lee liked my work, she liked my writing,” and that when he won the Harper Lee Award, he beseeched a mutual acquaintance to introduce them, so that “I could just say hello and shake her hand. ... She was kind and gracious and funny, and it was one of the nicer moments of my life.” Jon Meacham, late of Newsweek, tells a story of a brief encounter with Miss Lee at which he felt blessed by her abundant graciousness.  

Of course, it is altogether too tempting to recount, ad infinitum, the wisdom of celebrities as they seek to find meaning in life. But it is worth noting that their flattery of To Kill a Mockingbird is sincere, in such peoples’ fashion: This is an important novel because it helped to make them what they are today, and gave them a career boost at some strategic moment on the journey. Not a word about the language of the novel, or its structural qualities, or whether or not it is a work of consequence. Indeed, most reflections seem to come from the movie, not the written version, which tells us something about the witnesses and, of course, about Miss Lee’s bestseller.

Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by Mary McDonagh Murphy, Harper, 209pp., $24.99

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