Prequels & Sequels: A Blog Post About Inevitable Disappointments In Literary And Social History

Today I read original reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird from The Telegraph and The San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, an article that quotes one of Harper Lee’s friend’s take on the book, one of Miss Lee’s profound quotes on her goals as a writer. I also viewed a video in which the novel is referred to as “social history” and Atticus Finch is deemed a “moral compass”. All of these are fascinating, but the question remains, after digesting all this information, how is it that Atticus seems to change so drastically from one novel to the next? And, what might be the writer’s goal in depicting that change?

From George McMichael of the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, July 1960:

Best of all, Harper Lee has wisely and effectively employed the piercing accuracy of a child’s unalloyed vision of the adult world, to display the workings of a tragedy-laden region that little understands itself — or rarely seeks to.

I’m no literary expert, just a reader. I am not a sociologist, not an expert on cultural/regional influence, just a person who came of age in the post-Civil Rights Movement Southern U.S. Taking all this into consideration, I have a specific perspective on this novel, and a certain appreciation for Mr. McMichael’s statements.

I have an appreciation for “a child’s unalloyed vision of the adult world“. Unalloyed is defined as: (chiefly of emotions) complete and unreserved. Those things that we learn in childhood, those perceptions of significant events, conversations, the emotions that settle around the image or remembered words of a dear one … these stay with us and influence our ideals as we age. Inevitably, as we age, those ideals accepted in childhood, those unconsciously formed absolutes, get tested. They become problematic, regrettably indefensible. Life can be cruel that way. What becomes of these ideals? Do we cling, do we abandon them altogether? Poor Scout.

Atticus was Scout’s moral compass in her childhood. It’s my belief that the widowed father took great care with that responsibility. He was a man of the law, of careful deliberation. And yet, if we pay close attention, he was a man of boundaries. Some of those boundaries he refused to directly impose upon his children, some he didn’t.

“… to display the workings of a tragedy-laden region that little understands itself — or rarely seeks to.” 

What’s most remarkable about the South is that people who have never lived here, people who weren’t raised here and who’s great grandparents weren’t raised here, cannot decipher the coding embedded within the clearly outlined boundaries of old vs. the clearly outlined boundaries of the 70s, the 80s, and today. There’s no codex, no beautifully bound book of definitions or parables that explains the equal importance of the blurred boundaries, the boundaries that wave in the wind, the boundaries that pop up seemingly out of nowhere and only after a new generation’s scenario plays out. The most remarkable thing about the South is that Southerners (in general) haven’t troubled themselves with defining, reconstructing, renaming, or erasing those boundaries. This region is composed of people who generally decide on their own which boundaries they’ll cross or won’t, and those who will either accept what’s relevant today as their personal boundaries, or pick and choose and judge from the comfort of their own porch.

On the outskirts of the town where I grew up, a crossroad slows traffic long enough for a decision to be made. Go left of a grand old oak tree, and you’ll find yourself on a back road that wasn’t paved until the 1990s — it leads on past a plain clapboard church, cotton fields, and the occasional modest house to a small town once thick with factories and car lots.  Go right of the oak tree and that narrow winding road (paved in the 80s) is flanked by hog farms, faded red barns, and eventually, that road crosses the invisible line into another county where passersby are first greeted by a dilapidated pool hall and handwritten signs promising homemade pickles. Scenic drives in either direction. It’s now 2015 and no one has ever raised the proposition to cut down that elderly, bent old tree to erect a traffic light or put up official notifications of which road leads to where. Why? Because the locals are confident where they’ll end up, maybe. And newcomers will eventually figure it all out.

There’s no way to fully explain the stubborn pride of a geriatric Great Uncle who insists humanity as he understands it does not thrive north of the Mason Dixon Line, nor to adequately convey the fact that same old man possesses and lavishly demonstrates an unmatched generosity and kindness to everyone he ever met fitting the criteria of “underdog”. There is no way to justify poker, hard drinking, and target shooting on Saturday night followed by an exuberant eight hours of church fellowship on Sunday.There is no way for me — a person who grew up in a South more economically than racially divided — to help outsiders understand it’s equally acceptable to pay annual homage to fallen Civil War soldiers as it is to pay homage to the spiritual and intellectual strength of a great Civil Rights leader who was slain by a white criminal.

Did Scout live in a place that could be described as “a tragedy-laden region that little understands itself”? Do I?

Don’t we all?

As for seeking to understand (and, thus explain) the region, I think Miss Harper did an amazing job. Other writers should take note of exactly how she depicts the people living in Scout’s small town — they are all complex individuals in spite of what simplistic, ambiguous, or hate-filled ideals they claim.

As for Atticus … well, I’ll speak more on him later.

How newspapers reviewed ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in 1960.

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