Monday, April 29, 2013
First sentences: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
Scratch the surface of To Kill a Mockingbird and you'll find a controversial book. On the one hand, it's a novel of evangelical tolerance, promoting the soothing message that 'most people are [nice] when you finally see them' even in an environment bitterly divided by prejudice, that makes a hero of the white lawyer who defends a black client unjustly accused, and a tragedy of the childhood loss of innocence that goes with discovering you live in a racist world. It's one of the great anti-racist novels ... at least if you ask a white person.
But at the same time, many black readers are far from happy with it*. Its portrayal of the defendant Tom Robinson, for instance, is very much the portrayal of a 'respectable Negro', who feels no anger at the injustice of his situation, just regretful sorrow towards the girl accusing him, simple fear of her father, and unmixed gratitude to the white lawyer who remains friends with the white farmers even after they try to lynch him- a lynching which Atticus forgivingly prevents, in itself something of a difficult issue given that, as Isaac Saney points out, 'this act has no historical foundation' and is an unduly rosy portrayal of how 'good' white people acted in the era. Real white people didn't intervene in lynchings, and it's a comforting fiction to pretend otherwise - and a comfort, many would argue, that we have no right to indulge in. Likewise, the African American community of Maycomb shows no desire to resist the oppression they struggle under. The closest they get to concerted action is raising money to support Tom's family in a church collection, an impeccably apolitical response - and again, contrary to actual history: consider, for instance, the case of the 'Scottsboro boys', which provoked not only demonstrations but activism from the African American community, including the NAACP's attempt to provide the defendants with legal representation (whereas Atticus Finch is asked to take on the case by a white judge). No African American character shows the kind of suspicion and wariness towards well-intentioned whites you'd think any normal person would feel in so rigged a system, with the one exception of a rude woman at the maid Calpurnia's church who objects to Calpurnia bringing her white charges along on Sunday but is quickly told not to be 'contentious' by her fellow parishioners, dismissed thus: 'She's a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas and haughty ways'. In other words, To Kill a Mockingbird presents the only open expression of black anger towards whites as an aberration that better-minded black people recognise as getting above her station, an interpretation that seems - let us say, somewhat at odds with human nature. The virtuous majority of black characters are acknowledged to feel upset at Tom's fate, but their only action in response is to shower gifts on the white man who tried and failed to save him, and to stand up with quasi-religious deference (the gesture is promoted by their reverend, indeed) when he is 'passin''.
To Kill a Mockingbird is, then, a book that's undoubtedly well-intentioned - tolerance and empathy are its watchwords - but it's also a book that suppresses anger at injustice. The children are counselled to forgive and understand the racists; black characters are permitted to celebrate good white people but are not depicted as resenting bad ones. Opposition to racism is a question of white heroism, not black, and unmixed white heroism at that: Harper Lee apparently based the character of Atticus on her own father while glossing over the fact that he was, like real people tend to be, a complex mixture, defending black clients but advocating Jim Crow. That white heroism is also explicitly class-coded: 'The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only' are 'The handful of people in this town with background, that's who they are' - which is to say that racism is the attribute of 'poor whites', not white aristocrats, which rather puts it on the level of other gaucheries like pouring molasses on your meat, a regrettable affliction of the ill-bred that should be forgiven along with other forms of ignorance and bad manners. Noblesse oblige, and it obliges without stopping to ask whether black people, or indeed poor white people, see it the same way.
In short, it's a book that presents a nicer portrait of history than the facts would strictly allow, that intermixes its claims of tolerance with a firm intra-racial snobbery, and most problematic of all, advocates forgiveness before redress. To forgive may be divine, but even many divines concede that it doesn't serve justice to ask forgiveness towards one who is still harming you. Rather than presenting injustice as something that must be righted before it can be forgiven, though, To Kill a Mockingbird presents forgiveness as the first step: racism can only be opposed gently, and only by white people who are all but canonised for their efforts. This may be a noble sentiment, but it's one that is, shall we say, easier to assume from a position above systemic injustice than it is from below, and open to accusations of complacency and condescension. It's a very feel-good book, viewed from a certain perspective, and that perspective is not unassailable.
But from from within that perspective, my goodness what an effective feel-good book it is. Politically, To Kill a Mockingbird can be difficult for many people to swallow - but one of the reasons for this is precisely that, for many other people, it's all too easy to swallow. Part of this, to be sure, is that it's a perfect cockle-warmer for white people insulated from black voices, but the other part of it is that, on a purely artistic level, it really is an excellent work of fiction. Wonderfully structured, linking tiny loss to tiny loss of innocence to the final tragedy and redemption; writing that goes down as smooth as good whiskey; infused from the first page with a vivid sense of place and an ever-delightful set of scrappy, charming, unsentimental children carrying us into the adult world, To Kill a Mockingbird is a book skilled enough to please college professors and readable enough to be the first 'grown-up' novel many children read. Indeed, I can testify that it was probably the first such book I enjoyed, and I still remember the sense of, 'Hey, this isn't boring! I'm actually enjoying this!' Adult conversations often went over my head and left me impatient, but this book spoke to me, not much older than Jem (and far more insulated from the pain of race relations in American history), as naturally as it spoke to my parents, whose copy I had in my hands. You can disagree with To Kill a Mockingbird politically; of course you can. There's no question, though, that it's a beautifully-done version of what it is. Among the famous 'Southern lady' writers, Harper Lee manages to eschew Florence King's cutesy digs and Margaret Mitchell's passionate polemics, and writes instead out of a kind of idealism, a genuine love of place and people that idealises them as well as any virtues they may have had. You may not be able to see the place and people the same way she did, and if you can't, history is probably on your side - but in writing what she saw, she wrote well.
Which makes it rather interesting that her book gets off to what looks like a slow start. We don't begin in the middle of a scene, but with a rather circular, discursive beginning. Jem 'got his arm badly broken'; the rest of the paragraph describes how the arm never quite healed right but that Jem didn't mind because he could still play football, meaning that the whole thing is filled with non-event. In the second, paragraph, the children's dispute about 'the events leading to his accident' are paraphrased, Scout blaming 'the Ewells' and Jem referring back to 'when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out', with no helpful hints for the reader as to who any of these people might be ... and then from there, we unspool straight into a family argument, Scout adding 'I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson,' and from there, as if reminded of the role American history played in the development of her home town of Maycomb, wanders off into a digression about her family tree (which does in fact include a slave-owner, this fact presented without comment), her father's career, the family unit she grew up in and the town they inhabited. Scout's voice has the eloquence of an adult in these first pages, and, too, an adult's awareness that history shapes us -especially in a town that prides itself on its 'background - but she retains something of the distractibility of a child, taking four pages of paddling around in the backwaters of her life before giving us the definite event of 'the summer Dill came to us', and the meeting between brother Jem and sister Scout and their new part-time neighbour Dill Harris. (Famously based on Truman Capote, Nelle Harper Lee's childhood friend, though one doesn't need to know that to read the book.) In a story of a 'tired old town' populated by people deeply preoccupied with history and reluctant to relinquish whatever scraps of aristocracy they can glean from it, we almost need to get a little family history before we can really meet the Finches: they live in an environment in which family history is an essential part of who you are - at least if you're white.
It's a fairly common teaser to refer to a dramatic incident and then slide away from it, and this is Lee's technique here: Jem's arm breaks, and we don't know why. It's not a violent sentence: the retrospective tone makes this an injury we're remembering, not seeing, and the word 'broken' is cushioned at both ends, the innocuous 'when he was nearly thirteen' easing us in, and the practical detail of 'at the elbow' easing us out. Even 'badly broken' is, paradoxically, less harsh to read than 'broken': the word on its own can have a jabbing force (a device I've admired in F. Scott Fitzgerald recently, in fact), but 'badly', even though it sounds serious, is still something of a shock-absorber. Any writing teacher can tell you that adverbs tend to lessen the impact of verbs: it's not a generalisation worth being too paranoid about, of course, but they do take up space in the sentence and can act like packing-straw around the central action, and so it is here. 'Badly broken' sounds like a medical assessment, and medical assessments are done post facto: at the instant of breakage we don't register exactly how 'badly' the bone splits. We just feel the crack, and the pain. 'Badly broken' is what the break is agreed to be after it's happened, and as a result, this sentence is packed in layers of past. Aptly enough for a novel that eases away some of the harsher truths of history, we begin with a wounded child whose injury we hear about from a safe distance.
At the same time, it's definitely a teaser, hinting towards the direction the story will take: what caused this break is complicated, and it will take a book to explain it. What is being hinted here? On one level, it sounds mundane, the kind of ordinary accident that happens in most childhoods: children fall down and hurt themselves a lot. There are just a few little whispers, though, that this is not a question of falling out of a tree or tripping on the football pitch. Jem was 'nearly thirteen', getting out of the clumsiest phase: twelve-year-olds do break limbs, of course, but it's not quite the age you'd expect - too old to fall over as often as small children do, too young to be in full-flight teenage recklessness. It sounds, if we listen closely, as if something has happened to Jem. Scout doesn't say 'my brother Jem broke his arm', which would be the usual construction, she says, 'my brother Jem got his arm badly broken': Jem is the passive subject of this sentence, not the active breaker. Jem didn't break his arm ... which carries the troubling hint, borne out by later events, that somebody else did. Even though the next paragraph soothes us by describing it as an 'accident', the precise phrasing suggests something more. It's only right at the end that we learn what really happened to inflict this permanently disabling injury: that a grown man has attacked two children, and that it's only through the appearance of a kind of guardian angel that he didn't murder them both. Scout's slightly unusual choice of words makes it absolutely clear that Jem is not responsible for the breakage. Jem is one of the book's innocents, in fact, not responsible for anything really bad, and even in the first sentence this is clear. He didn't break his arm. Jem is one of the mockingbirds.
Also clear, implicit in the very choice of subject, is where the book's focus is going to lie. From a political angle, one can find support for the African American criticisms of the book: we begin with a survivable injury to a white child, not with the effective murder of a black adult. Of course, to reveal Tom Robinson's fate on the first page would be to undermine the tension of the plot, so there are practical reasons why Lee couldn't begin there, but we don't have to be that literal about it. What it makes very clear is that this book is going to be from a specific viewpoint: Scout, who is white, mostly interested in her own family, and lives in a segregated world. Tom Robinson is a symbol in her childhood memories, not a 'neighbor' even though they live in the same town: she doesn't know him personally, never meets him face to face, and doesn't even know what he looks like until she sees him in court. One reason why the book's tight focus on the white perspective flies as well as it does is that this is a child's-eye view of the world: we don't expect children to be broad observers of the world outside their small circle. Children are expected to be insular, and Scout, naive, hot-headed and fallible, is the perfect vessel to carry the insularity of which people can reasonably accuse the book. She's not supposed to be all-knowing, and her imperfect perception of race makes a good cover for the book's imperfections.
Of course, this naivete is a luxury reserved for safe children; as J.L. Chestnut remarked of the era (quoted here), 'If you were black, the significance of race wasn't something you suddenly discovered. It wasn't even something you had to be told. It was something you just grew up knowing, something almost instinctual ... It was just the way things were, and folk accommodated themselves to it.' Scout and Jem's sad discovery that it's a racist world is something they have to work out from a limited vantage point. They grow up with an African American maid, Calpurnia, who effectively serves the function of their mother, but when she scolds Scout, Scout can still complain about to Calpurnia to her father with the opinion that he should 'lose no time in packing her off'. Atticus responds with a 'flinty' refusal and a sharp injunction to show more appreciation for 'how much Cal does for you', but the fact remains that this is a society in which a white child's African American acquaintances are sackable servants, not comrades and equals. The old Southern apologetic about the 'special relationship' between white masters and black workers hangs over it: the book focuses on the affectionate relationship between Calpurnia and the Finches and nobody, black or white, points out the unequal structure upon which the relationship rests. The incident that Scout chooses as the story's climax, and hence the appropriate subject for the first sentence, is Jem's broken arm, not Tom Robinson's stolen life, and we go from there. 'Lawyers, I suppose, were children once,' reads the quotation from Charles Lamb at the book's beginning, and again, this makes it clear where we will focus: the legal heroism of a white lawyer, and on the children that look up to him.
It's impossible to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird and keep politics out of it: it is a political book, about a fraught issue, and from a questionable perspective. The awkward thing, too, is that the first sentence isn't very helpful when I'm trying to be fair to it: I can make a lot of political capital out of it, but the real charms of the novel lie in its dialogue, its humour (so often at Scout's own expense), its vivid spark of character against character, and these are simply not present in the opening pages. Those are the pages I skipped as a child, and I suspect a lot of other children did likewise: you need to have some knowledge of American history for them to make sense, and some patience in waiting for a story to start. But the first sentence still has Scout's most effective charm of voice: it is direct. No commas or digressions weigh it down, no presumptions about the reader: Scout just pulls up a chair and plants her elbows on the table and starts talking straight to us. How old is she when tells this tale? It's hard to know; she recounts her feelings and thoughts with no editorialising, as if still feeling as a child, but with a fluency, a vocabulary and a diction free of the Alabama accent that rings through Scout's speech that suggest an adult speaker - just one who remembers her childhood with the clarity of water over sand. Jem is still 'Jem', not Jeremy, his full name. Age is still measured with a child's aspiration: not 'twelve', but 'nearly thirteen', reaching up towards the older-sounding figure. 'Got his arm' has an earthy quality, 'got' always sounding that echo in which we remember some strict grammarian reminding us that it's 'I have', not 'I've got.' The descriptions are matter-of-fact, 'got his arm badly broken at the elbow' sacrificing elegance for a tumble of detail to make sure we understand plainly what's what. No word lasts more than two syllables, and none of them are high-sounding. There's nothing in any of it for a reader to snag on, no pretensions of language or flaunting of erudition. Stylistically, this is the art of making it look easy, one of the hardest tricks in the world. It's the perfect vehicle for the deadpan humour that will animate so much of the book's best passages and lend an air of dignity to its saddest ones. We trust a voice like this - even if we later regret it.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a good book, artistically speaking, with the particular merit of being both good and accessible. That's why it keeps cropping up on high-school reading lists, often to the discomfort of African American students, for whom having to sit through reading after reading of the N-word is, I imagine, rather like the experience of being a girl in film class expected to absorb a curriculum in which the only female-centred film is I Spit On Your Grave. Is it a good book politically? It depends on who you ask, and if you ask someone who immediately answers 'Yes', you'd better be prepared for an argument if you disagree. So persuasively, so wittily and eloquently and vividly does it put across its message that it's a genuine shock for most admirers to hear that it really does offend some people, and reasonable people at that. The sense of voice is so authentic that it can be hard to separate from its less-than-accurate portrait of history, the less-than-equal weight it gives to white and black anger at injustice, white and black activism, white and black heroism in the real world. It simply feels real, to the point where an entranced reader feels really, honestly confused if someone says that it's not.
Kick Margaret Mitchell off all the school reading lists you want, I guess, but remember you'd better brace yourself if you want to challenge Mockingbird. And it's not just white blinkers that make it so, though it is that too. It's a well-written, engaging, attractive work of fiction. It's just what it chooses to fictionalise that can be such a problem.
*For those who'd like to read up, Isaac Saney's famous 'The case against To Kill A Mockingbird' is an excellent place to start, as it's one of the most authoritative and comprehensive critiques; see also Malcolm Gladwell's 'The Courthouse Ring'. For some less scholarly viewpoints, the comments here are also worth checking out.
Commenters in the thread cited mention Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as an interesting counterpoint to Harper Lee. I'd suggest another book too, though this one is by a white author: for those who've been following this series, you may remember my piece on Donna Tartt's The Little Friend. Among its various excellences, it contains an interesting riposte to To Kill a Mockingbird in the relationship between white child and black housekeeper. Ida Rhew, like Calpurnia, is a de facto mother figure to the protagonist Harriet Cleve, whose mother is alive but has lived in a permanent psychological haze, probably clinical depression, since the death of her oldest child, and whose father is living in another town with his mistress. Ida is not caressing, but she cooks meals and cleans clothes and makes beds and imposes order and creates, through her repetitive, menial work, a degree of comfort and predictability that make Harriet's shattered home a bearable place. What's different is that while Harriet passionately loves and absolutely relies upon Ida, she is forced to acknowledge that this love is basically unrequited - that in the relationship between employee and employer's child in a racist system, feelings cannot flow simply back and forth. Ida has her own children and her own concerns and, after the Cleve family try her patience too far, gets tired of her underpaid job and leaves. Harriet is desolate, but this not blamed on Ida: she has clear reason to limit her goodwill towards Harriet, given that the family pay her exploitatively low wages and make no effort to oppose the racism of the town, and that Harriet's best friend Hely prides himself on being so unmanageable that he manages to drive out one black housekeeper after another. Working for a white family, even if the children love you, is not much of a job, and Ida doesn't feel bound to sacrifice herself for ever.
Ida is also politically aware: she speaks to Harriet about the terrorism poor white people have perpetrated against her community 'after Dr King come to town' and the way middle-class white people have done nothing to punish it, and is openly angry, silencing Harriet's protests with a sharp 'Sometime the police favor criminals more than the one against who they commit the crime.' There's an interesting linguistic contrast in how she describes her neighbours, too: where Calpurnia describes the Robinson family as 'clean-living', Ida describes 'Miss Etta', who was killed in the attack, as 'righteous'. (And note the honorific; Calpurnia has to start calling the boy she's raised from childhood 'Mr Jem' when he hits puberty, but nobody is calling Tom Robinson's wife 'Miss Helen'.) Both are talking about victims in terms of their virtues, and their Christian virtues at that, but 'clean-living' is an unthreatening term of approbation, suggesting little more than passive acquiescence to social standards: the Robinsons keep their bodies and houses up to the mark, they don't drink, gamble or make too much noise - they are, basically, noted for what they don't do. Miss Etta, on the other hand, is 'righteous', a far more active term with the suggestion of moral authority.
There are other ways in which Tartt holds a mirror up to Lee: she takes an interest in the lives of 'poor white' characters, for instance, and makes one member of the Ratliff clan (the Ewells of The Little Friend) her secondary protagonist. It's interesting to read the later book with the earlier in mind.
Note to commenters: I wish I didn't have to say this, but this being the Internet I probably do, so here goes. The subject of race and racism is a difficult one to discuss without people losing their heads, but I would like to have faith in people here. Please confirm my hope that comments can remain civil and sensible.
To that end, some basics. Stay on topic; the subject is To Kill a Mockingbird, not who gets to win the not-a-racist competition. If you're going to speak about other people's experiences, quote, cite and/or link as much as possible. If you're going to speak about your own experiences, especially if you're white, stick to the subject under discussion, which is the book, not whether or not you're a good person. Comments that smack of the troll, the tantrum, the breakdown, the racist diatribe, the progressiver-than-thou show-off or the asinine remark will be deleted without discussion.
There is, as you note, the persistent attempt at empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird, although Lee may not always be able to extend it successfully to everyone. I like that that's shown, too, by the fact that we begin not with Scout--even though it's her perspective--but with Jem. Her concern is that something happened to him, and that creates an empathetic reaching-out even as it creates a perverse sense of safety. We're in a world where people will try to care about the misfortunes of others, but we're also in a world where the misfortunes will only belong to others. It's a story of when something awful (and in some cases, as in Jem's, not really that awful) happened to other people: Scout cares, but there's no rawness or confusion or anger, as you note, because it isn't, at the end of the day, something she/"we" have to deal with happening to her/"us," with "us" being the readers. The danger, or at least the suffering, is always secondhand.
This is part criticism but part admiration, too, as it really does create a wholly "safe" way to explore the issue--if you're white, which is the caveat of most experiences of TKaM. At the very least, the premise is inherent from the first sentence: you know what you're getting. A novel that began "When I was nearly thirteen I got my arm badly broken at the elbow" would be a very different novel.
I always forget that the novel starts with such a lengthy placement of kinship, but it's fitting, then, that we begin with Jem being identified as "my brother Jem": he has to be properly situated in his familial context.
I've read The Little Friend, but would like to reread it now with To Kill a Mockingbird specifically looking for the responses to TKaM's race and class issues.
Can I nominate A. S. Byatt's Possession for first line consideration? (Or first two lines, since the first one's short?)
I think Lauren J hits the nail on the head as far as her points on empathy and viewing misfortune secondhand. Couldn't say it better myself.
The honorific you talk about at the end, however, is maybe less than you think it is--I grew up in Alabama, and it's not a racist thing, it's more an age/proximity thing. Growing up, I was "Miss Frenchroast" to lots of people who were family friends and neighbors, regardless of race. It's a way of making kids feel more grown-up. Our friend and neighbors would call me that, and they'd call my parents by their names. Adults used honorifics on each other when it related to work or someone they'd just met. Still, it's been awhile since I read TKaM, so the usage might not be as straightforward as that; I'm certainly not saying your interpretation isn't possible or that it's wrong, 'cause you could very well be noticing something I missed.
I might have to pick up TKaM again soon--you've brought up a lot of stuff I clearly missed the first couple of go-arounds, and I don't think you're wrong, either. I imagine most white readers like to think we're all Atticus Finch, even though we very much aren't.
Actually, I think the fact that (when the story takes place, and maybe even when she tells it) Scout is still young enough to be "Scout" and not "Miss Jean Louise" is the only thing that makes the memory of TKaM bearable for me as an adult. (I first read it as a child, and as a white child; I now share the criticisms of the racial politics but as a child I didn't see them for myself.) Only a child who is young enough not to be conscious of her participation in a racist system is innocent enough to reflect on that system with the sort of unqualified love that Scout shows. She's a very wise choice for a narrator, and Lee deserves all sorts of credit for figuring that out. An adult white narrator could not have told the same story uncritically.
So I think that the opening line, presenting her in all her childish solipsism is kind of genius.
Just popping up briefly to say thanks for repaying my hope that people could comment intelligently.
@Frenchroast - that is interesting, and not being an Alabaman (is that the word?), I can claim no expertise on that subject. What I would say about the book is that the honorifics flow differently up and down the generations depending on race: Scout calls Calpurnia by her first name alone, but her neighbour is 'Miss Maudie' and when she finally meets Boo Radley, he's 'Mr Arthur'. So to a white child, the 'Miss' and 'Mr' seem to be friendly but respectful markers you use when talking to your elders, but only your white elders.
Meanwhile, Calpurnia starts to call Jem 'Mr Jem', but addresses Atticus as the more-formal 'Mr Finch' while he, too, calls her 'Calpurnia.' He addresses Miss Maudie just by her first name too, so we might take it as a sign of intimacy, but on the other hand he calls Mayella Ewell 'Miss Mayella' - which, famously, she mistakes for sarcasm rather than manners, suggesting that honorifics are something that only a certain class employs. She's younger than him - older people like Mrs Dubose he calls by surname - but when talking to Mayella, he 'Miss'es her like he's taking off his hat.
Add that all up, and you have some subtle variations, but basically it seems that honorifics are used by white children as a mark of respect to their white seniors, that white adults use first names with close friends of their own race and honorifics for strangers or elders, and that black people have to use honorifics with everybody past puberty, 'Mr Jem' with kids and 'Mr Finch' with adults. Which is to say, it sounds very much as if linguistically speaking, black people are basically one step 'younger' than white people - which tallies with the ugly custom some characters adhere to of calling black men 'boy'.
Your essay reminded me of the late Chinua Achebe’s essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness,'" which touches on some of the same issues as your review (albeit more extreme). You can find it here:
It’s quite good.
Achebe’s central criticism is that Heart of Darkness presents racist caricatures of Africans and that “Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.” For Achebe racism was the bigger issue and so Conrad, in reinforcing it, does more harm than good. He also takes issue with the main message of the story, which is white people should stay out of Africa because of what it will do *to them.* So naturally he has very strong and very justified moral objections to the book.
But as Adam Hochschild has pointed out in his history of Leopold’s Congo, the book presents an extremely true to life picture of what happened to many European exploiters in the Congo. The European agents employed by the Congo Free State regularly became complete sociopaths or out-and-out sadists in pursuit of their commissions. They also tended to set themselves up as warlord chieftains, take concubines or harems, and spread grandiose stories of their exploits. Those with intellectual pretensions would write articles and books about colonial exploration, empire building, Congo fauna, flora, and (how they perceived) Africans and their customs. Many of these agents also died, whether from disease or from violence (well over a third). Some completely lost their minds.
So, however distant Heart of Darkness’s Congolese are from real Africans, the character of Mr. Kurtz was very true to life. So you have a work of fiction which offers a false, racist portrait of Congolese Africans and another half which offers an accurate and damning portrait of how Europeans behaved in the Congo (and in a broader way, how people will behave when given absolute power over other human beings by virtue of being from a “superior” civilization). Quite a mixed bag and definitely deserving a great deal of thought.
btw, I was peaking at your post on ‘100 Years of Solitude’ and I noticed the following unanswered Anonymous comment:
“I’m very interested in your first disclosure, as I have also recently been introduced to the works of Isabel Allende, and Paola Masino (1982; Birth and Death of a Housewife), via Massimo Bontempelli. I would very much like to learn which female magical realists you’ve enjoyed. Apologies if you’ve listed them previously.”
Which caught my eye because I also happen to possess Paola Masino’s only translated book (which I haven’t gotten to yet) and those few translated works of Massimo Bontempelli available in English (which I have read and really enjoyed). I also got Masino’s book via Bontempelli as well (they were lovers and peers). Small world :)
I don’t have any books by Isabel Allende though, so there the connection ends.
Anyway, I’m *also* very interested in the question of who your favorite magical realists are :)
Off the top of my head, I'd say Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood (oh yes, she is, read The Robber Bride) and Susanna Clarke. Not all classified as such, but I think you can make the case for all of them.
Ah, see, I didn't realize that was how the honorifics were used with the other characters. Your point stands, that is definitely a dubious usage of honorifics.
Maybe (since I grew up in the 1980s/1990s) my experience of it is positive shift towards more equal treatment, at least in regards to that? I hope so, at least.
I'm definitely adding TKaM to my reread pile for the year.
Another good contrast to read it with - although for an older crowd due to subject matter, despite the fact that much of it is from a child's perspective - is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. It covers much of the same period of time, but the society is so alien in a way that To Kill a Mockingbird isn't. Even with my adult knowledge of racism and the civil rights movement, her descriptions of being black and living in an incredibly segregated town in Arkansas still strike me as foreign. She presents a very good portrait of black anger and wariness towards white people, which the reader easily empathizes with, even if you are white. She also goes through some very traumatic incidents unrelated to race that shed some depressing and sad light on gender relations of both then and now.
I can't begin to describe the quality of this book. It paints a very clear picture of segregation in 19th century America using a child as the narrator. And it works like a charm. One of the best books I've read in recent times.
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I feel one of the ways the novel succeeds in some aspects to present things in a more forgiving manner is because it's seem through Scout's eyes. You say Atticus prevented the lynching but in the story it's Scout who cause s the mob to pause. It isn't realistic but if Tom was lynched the story would be over. The story itself presents many scenarios that caused me, a white female, to face hatred and prejudice in a way I could begin to understand. It's not a perfect example but the book itself is a masterpiece. The mission group meeting where women discuss blacks far off in a sympathetic way while expressing prejudice at those in their town. Thanks for your perspective. I reread this book almost every year since high school and it makes me cry every time. For those so mixed up in prejudice and those who combat it in whatever way they're able.
Mr. Whitfield. Today, I discovered your 9Post a Comment
plus year old blog, unintentionally, while searching for the opening line of TKAM, having displaced my hardback copy. Your analysis inspires thorough introspection having shared similar aesthetic views of her novel but also held a particle of forgiveness for Lee’s inaccurate or incomplete historical views. Growing up poor in northern Alabama during the 50s, it’s easy as a Black youth to see through the lens of a bias/discriminatory/racist society. Fortunately, in Nikki Giovanni’s words, it wasn’t poverty that concerned us, but in retrospect, I sense a measure of fortune or luck to have been in Huntsville instead of Scottsboro, Birmingham or many other cities and enclaves in AL during that era. Nevertheless that little “oasis” was not without incidents. My dad dreams were forever deferred and mom supported the family. Early childhood employment own was the only way to obtain allowances. So, no ,TKAM does not fully or accurately portray of the black southern community. But is that something we should expect from others telling “our” stories? I sincerely suspect that my biological “twin” brother’s analysis of our childhood experiences would vary wildly and in some cases may be unrecognizable.
Nevertheless, I’m in complete awe over the issues your blog navigates and realize that multiple readings will promote further introspection. Thank you
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