Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Scout, Harper Lee, and To Kill a Mockingbird: "She's turned girls into the kind of women we want"

"People want to read something with real substance. I think they want to read a novel that gives us all something to believe in. To Kill a Mockingbird manages to do that without being too preachy."

That's novelist Lee Smith, one of the voices heard from in Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird. Smith says she's read the book more than 20 times, teaching it to students from junior high to graduate school and always finding something new.
When I was growing up, girls in the South were–and are still today, I think–oftentimes raised to be fitting into some sort of a ladylike mold where they are not supposed to express feelings and they are not supposed to stand up for things. I just think of girls in the South being squashed as they’re being raised. So the role that Scout has played in all these girls' minds as they have read the book is very important. Here's Scout who believes in things, who is funny and curious and passionate and a tomboy. I think Scout has done more for Southern womanhood than any other character in literature…. She's turned girls into the kind of women we want….
Students are reading it today with the same responses we all had in the '60s. I just spent a day i a high school doing a workshop … at first I could not get the students to talk to me about what they were reading. Then a boy said To Kill a Mockingbird, and everybody started talking about it and what they had gotten out of it…. It still has a galvanizing effect on a younger reader.
This is a novel which endures, as opposed to other classics which don't appeal as much to readers today. The Sun Also Rises is a good example, because students just say, 'Who are all these people drinking in Spain? What is this about? You never get that reaction to To Kill a Mockingbird. It remains as relevant today as it was the day it was written. It never ages. It's a story of maturing, certainly, and initiation, but told in such beautifully specific terms that it never seems generic.
Above left, Harper Lee holds a tire swing with Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1961 movie. Above right, Gregory Peck and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962, with a screenplay by Horton Foote. In 2003, AFI named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.
Published in 1960, the novel was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize and eventually becoming a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters derive from Lee's observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred in 1936 near her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (where she still lives) when she was 10. Lee has not spoken publicly about the book since 1964. She even declined the opportunity to gab on tv with Oprah Winfrey, who tells the story in Scout, Atticus and Boo:
"I knew 20 minutes into the conversation that I would never be able to convince her to do an interview and it is not my style to push. She said to me, 'I already said everything I needed to say.… You know the character Boo Radley? Well, if you know Boo, then you understand why I wouldn't be doing an interview because I am really Boo.' I knew that was the end of it. I just enjoyed the lunch." 
This PBS page reprints a huge excerpt from the book by its editor Mary Murphy, whose research for it led to an American Masters documentary.
Right, Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. The memorable role was his film debut.

1 comment:

  1. An American classic, tour de force, easily read, and just plain interesting. The 50s movie, compliments it well but the book is a warm captivating insight into Southern small-town life in the 30s that goes beyond what the movie can portray. I like both. And the book is something I read every couple years. It's that good.