To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Second reading. I read this 1960 novel many years ago, but with the recent publication of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman—which she wrote before this one, and which covered the same characters twenty years later—I decided to reread this classic. I wanted to compare my response today with the review I wrote more than five decades ago. Because that review had not been entirely positive for a novel that is now recommended reading in every schoolroom. What had I missed?

My initial reaction to this second reading is to see why it has become so popular, so recommended by both parents and teachers. For this is the ideal book to put into an adolescent’s hands. It has a real story. It is about children; and it is told from their viewpoint, especially that of a young tomboy named Scout. And most important, almost every page teaches a lesson about how both children and adults should conduct themselves.

There are examples of how children should behave toward siblings, friends, and parents, as well as toward teachers, authorities, and neighbors—indeed, toward everyone they encounter. And also how adults should conduct themselves with their children, their relatives, and their friends, as well as with strangers of any age, any social level, and any race. Readers learn this primarily from Scout’s father, Atticus, but also from Scout’s reactions to others, especially to her brother Jem.

In some ways, this novel’s portrait of Southern society recalls The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—perhaps because that novel is also related from a child’s viewpoint. But this work is a far cry from Twain’s classic. Because the events presented here are completely on the surface. There is gossip but no true social satire, and there is no subtle Southern texture, no psychological complexity, no hidden meanings boiling just below the surface.

Indeed, the Gregory Peck movie version was so successful, I believe, because there is so little under the surface to bring forth. And movies, with their emphasis on the visual, belong to the surface. They always find it difficult to capture the complex subtleties inside any work of fiction.

Three children are at the center of this novel, Scout, her brother Jem, four years older, and their friend Dill, a smart but immature boy supposedly based on the author’s friend, Truman Capote. Much of the action and most of the social observations revolve around Scout’s father Atticus Finch. He is a respected lawyer, with a black servant, Calpurnia, running his household.

Beyond Scout’s home are gossiping neighbors who provide simple social satire, and downtown are Judge Taylor and Sheriff Tate, both involved with the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. This trial and its repercussions are the centerpiece of the novel. Finally, there are the Cunninghams and the Ewells, lower class whites derided by the upper levels of white society, and Boo Radley, a neighbor who represents innocence.

Early events in the novel show Scout’s childhood life, from tensions on the school playground and in the classroom, to the scouting of recluse Boo Radley’s house, to the building of a snowman and its loss in a neighborhood fire, to, finally, the arrival of Aunt Alexandra to “civilize” Scout and Jem.

Then the rape of an Ewell girl and the trial of Tom Robinson is introduced. In my original reading, I suggested that the rape and the subsequent events exist in an adult world that the children do not belong to, and that they had to be forced into that world (as downtown witnesses at night, and joining the blacks in the courtroom balcony). I did not feel that earlier concern this time, but that reaction does have validity. Meanwhile, town events ranged from the people’s reaction to Atticus defending a “nigger,” to a dramatic confrontation with Atticus before the jail, to the extended treatment of the trial itself. Some critics, note, attribute the details of the trial to Lee’s interest in the law, and to her father having been a lawyer.

I wondered, however, in my first review whether Scout’s innocence might have been better joined to the heart of her childhood if Boo Radley had been identified more as an outsider, like the blacks were, and that Scout could have seen in her treatment of Boo much of what she objected to in the treatment of blacks. Or, if rather than Tom Robinson being accused of rape, someone in Calpurnia’s family was accused, for this would have given that trial much more significance in Scout’s personal life.

For its conclusion, the novel switches back to Scout’s childhood, specifically to her school’s Halloween pageant in which she wears a clumsy costume. On heading home from the school at night, she is attacked and falls, and during that confusion a man is killed. In both readings, I found the circumstances of that attack quite arbitrary, because it represented a return to Scout’s childhood, and it had no connection to the preceding events, except its justification of Boo Radley’s presence in the novel. There is also a lengthy discussion between Tate and Atticus about whom to blame for the death, which bothered me until I realized that underneath was a debate about how not to charge a good man with the death of the evil man who attacked Scout.

When Go Tell a Watchman came out last month, we learned the story behind the creation of Mockingbird. That Harper Lee wrote Watchman first, and that her New York editor convinced this young author that the real story was in Scout’s youth twenty years earlier. And so Lee wrote Mockingbird, a novel that created a very different Atticus Finch. For the Atticus of Watchman is a member of the White Citizens’ Council, while the Atticus of Mockingbird is himself mocked for “defending a nigger.” (Although one might note that Atticus does say that the leader of a lynch mob in Mockingbird is “basically a good man,” with “blind spots along with the rest of us.”)

All of which started me speculating. For Watchman was written in the late 1950s, when the civil rights movement was just picking up steam, and I wondered if the New York editor was perhaps not comfortable with publishing a beginner’s novel in which a main character is a member of the White Citizens’ Council and the work is filled with racist venom. And so to get around this, my theory holds, she suggested that this novice author refine her work and focus on an innocent child as the heroine who is just confronting the racial reality of that era, the 1930s. Which the young author did. Whether or not this happened, it is interesting to note that there is a trial of a black man in both novels, and that the outcomes are reversed—as if Lee chose a negative result in the 1930s novel to make her racial point stronger.

But it is also interesting to note law professor Monroe Freedman, who observed that Atticus did not change that much. That he went along with the white supremecist times in each case. In Mockingbird, he defended Robinson only because he was assigned that task; and he did not object to the prevailing norm of no black jurymen, nor to their segregation in the courtroom. Whereas in Watchman, when the civil rights movement is beginning and white Southerners are reacting with White Citizens’ Councils, we learn Atticus stays with the politics of his fellow Southerners.

Is the shift simply because the older Atticus is more conservative, more resistant to social change? And being a politician in Mockingbird, he is geared to remain so in Watchman?

A current New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani helps to set up the differences in the two novels. “Mockingbird… represents a determined effort to see both the bad and the good in small-town life, the hatred and the humanity; it presents an idealized father-daughter relationship…and views the past not as something lost but as a treasured memory. In a 1963 interview, Ms. Lee, who now lives in her old hometown, Monroeville, Ala., said of Mockingbird: ‘The book is not an indictment so much as a plea for something, a reminder to people at home.’”

Perhaps we might conclude that both novels are a tale of innocence. It is a sin to kill the mockingbird of the 1930’s book because the bird is an innocent. As Scout is an innocent girl in Mockingbird when, from the ages of five to eight, she discovers the real world and thinks she understands a father who is totally good. While in Watchman, now called Jean Louise, she returns home to discover her father is not who she thinks he is, but is actually a bigot.

In my original review, I speculated that Mockingbird might end up being Lee’s only novel because “the first half is truly her own life and the second half is mainly her imagination.” And that she may have “written herself out of her childhood memories.” But I also wrote that I would be interested in reading her next work, because “she can create children, can create the Southern scene, can be humorous, can be compassionate, can know exactly what she is doing in framing her scenes, and can create an interesting variety of people. {But] can—will—she do it again?”

It was worth reading To Kill a Mockingbird again. But the earlier, and less accomplished according to critics, Watchman is not at this point on my reading list. (August, 2015)

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Homer & Langley, by E. L. Doctorow

I bought this 2009 novel because I have long respected Doctorow. But I hesitated at picking it up to read, because I was not drawn to its story of two elderly recluse trapped in their trash-filled Fifth Avenue mansion, which is based on an actual event. What finally prompted me to read it was Doctorow death just a few weeks ago.

As soon as I entered the world of Homer and Langley Collyer, however, I became entranced. For it was a world of teenage brothers, one of whom, the narrator Homer, is slowly losing his sight and is in the process of adjusting to his new life. In other words, this tale has a voice, and one is quickly involved in this strange world.

For a while, this approach works, as these two young men become mutually supportive, especially when they lose their parents to the flu after World War I. Homer even has a brief romance. But at a certain point, their relationship no longer advances. Instead, interest comes from the various people who enter their home, the brothers’ relationship with the city and its services, and the alienation Homer and Langley have toward all those who violate their sanctuary.

We also learn that Langley is beginning to collect newspapers and other materials and is storing them away in their mansion. But I was never convinced about his reasons for doing this. It is not enough that he suffered brain damage from mustard gas in World War I. Nor is it that he has conceived a Theory of Replacements, meaning, for example, that children replace their parents. Most of all, it is not clear how this has led to his idea of replacing newspapers by creating a dateless newspaper comprising all of history. How this newspaper works never becomes clear to me, much less convincing. In addition, Homer accepts all of his brother’s decisions rather than challenges him. Mainly, he does not try to stop Langley’s impractical hoarding of other useless items, like placing a Model T in the dining room.

Nor does Homer, now blind, challenge his brother’s continual duels with the city and its services. The emphasis in every case is on the situation of these two men besieged in this Fifth Avenue mansion. Whereas, the richness of this novel should be inside the mansion, should be in the relationship between these two men. How does Langley justify, even to himself, what he does? And why is Homer so accommodating to his brother’s idiosyncrasies?

Even so, around the half-way point, this novel changes gears. It focuses even more on what is happening in the outside world, and how the brothers recognize and/or react to those events. There is a Depression. There is warfare in Europe, Japan, and Korea. There are the Sixties protests and assassinations. There is a landing on the moon. There is a city blackout. All of which recalls recent comments in Doctorow’s obituary that all his novels together comprise a century and a half of American history. This work certainly attempts to capture much of the 20th century.

Yes, there are occasional dramatic moments, such as when a young piano student whom Homer liked leaves and becomes a nun, and the brothers learn much later that she has been raped and killed in South America (such as actual nuns were). And also, when a gangster family whom the brothers had met earlier now seek to hide in their mansion after their leader is wounded.

Doctorow winds up his novel with Homer turning deaf, and so losing his ability to play and appreciate music, whereupon he is persuaded to become a writer, and to tell the story, via Braille, of the Collyer brothers, the story we are now reading. Sorry, this is too much a contrivance by the author to round off and conclude his novel. Also unconvincing to me is the clutter inside the mansion, the narrow aisles between the piles of newspapers, boxes, and debris. It is continually described, but I never felt the supposed claustrophobia. I never felt how these brothers had entrapped themselves in their own folly.

To sum up, after a promising beginning, this becomes a disappointing novel. It is too much about the surface of these brothers’ lives, whereas it should tell the internal story of why these brothers became recluses, the debates and disagreements they would have had, and the drama of how they antagonized each other rather than how the outside world antagonized them. It relies too much on known fact, on the outside world, and not enough on the author’s imagination, on what was happening inside these brothers’ minds.

This is the last of Doctorow’s novels I shall read. Unfortunately, it is not one of his better ones. (August, 2015)

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

One senses on the very first page of this 2013 novel that Gilbert is a master of the novel’s craft. After introducing the birth of her heroine, Alma Whittaker, she says: let’s give her time to grow up. And so, instead, she tells the story of Alma’s rich Philadelphia father, Henry Whittaker, who was raised in poverty in England.

And one thinks: Oh, no. But immediately, we begin a fascinating tale of this poor lad whose father teaches him all he can about plant life. And then a rich patron sends the boy abroad, first, with the last expedition of Captain Cook to the Pacific, and, second, on an exploration of Peru. There, Henry encounters the cinchona bark that contains a cure for yellow fever. It is the bark that will be the source of quinine, and it will make Henry rich.

Even as Alma is introduced at age five, the novel continues more as narration than as drama. This was understandable when offering a summary of Henry’s life, but it also seems reasonable when Alma is young and less able to think and act on her own. But we do wonder if this narrative approach will continue.

But it does not. As Alma grows older, she develops her own instincts, and her scenes amid Philadelphia society are dramatized. Thank goodness! Interest comes from two young friends, Prudence and Retta, each taken into the Whittaker household under different circumstances—and both eventually marrying, somewhat to Alma’s distress. Meanwhile, she grows at 21 or so into a respected scientist, focusing on the study of moss.

And then, suddenly, the book jumps ahead 25 years. Alma is 48 and still unmarried, and we are less than half-way into this novel. So, we wonder, what interest we will find in this tall, large, plain-looking, middle-aged woman? Answer: romance. It enters in the form of Ambrose Pike—and culminates in the most unusual sex scene in literary history. It seems Ambrose is a genius at drawing flowers; and Alma, seeing a colleague as interested in botany as herself, is happy with him like with no other person. Although, when she suggests marriage, he is a different kind of cat—or should we say a different kind of angel? And, inevitably, they part.

The final portion of the novel begins as Alma, disillusioned with her marriage, takes a Boston whaler around Cape Horn and across the Pacific to Tahiti, where her husband had earlier been banished. He had gone there to use his skills to portray more of nature. It is a marvelously created sea voyage for Alma, this middle-aged woman, as she survives both the male world of sailors and the ferocious power of nature. While this represents a remarkable transition to a vastly different world, the early Tahiti scenes lack the solidity of the Philadelphia setting, because Alma does not understand the language, the customs, or the culture of these natives.

Finally, however, she has a mission. It is to find the Boy whose figure her husband drew and who appeared to inspire his final days. But when she finds the Boy, he seems too perfect, too self-possessed to be real. He seems also, to the reader, to be a tool Gilbert uses to bring an end and a fulfillment to Alma’s Tahiti experience. Note it also brings a moment of sex that harkens back to her youth, but its symbolic intent does not for me enhance or enlarge her portrait.

Alma leaves Tahiti finally, and decides to settle in Amsterdam with the family of her dead mother. Here, as she lives her final decades, the novel’s meaning comes to the front, and Alma’s human experiences recede into the background. For on her voyage home, she has written an essay in which she draws on her study of mosses to explain her interpretation of nature itself. Her conclusion is that all life evolves and advances as a result of the struggle of living beings to survive, to overcome adversity, and to triumph over their environment.

This belief is, of course, remarkably close to Darwin’s belief in the survival of the fittest, and Gilbert draws on this scientific development to conclude her novel. For there is another scientist, Alfred R. Wallace, a real person, who has developed a theory similar to Darwin’s, and she invites Wallace to Amsterdam to lecture on his theory. It is an arrogant step by Gilbert to finalize the credentials of her heroine, who has held back on publishing her own treatise because she believes her theory has a hole—that evolution cannot explain the altruism of human beings, how people will sacrifice themselves for others, rather than try to survive them.

And now, Gilbert introduces the idea of a supreme being, an idea that even gives this novel its title. That idea is that God has left a signature of his existence in the perfectly designed things of nature, from the world of the smallest flower to that of the largest star. But, Wallace explains to Alma, he does not believe that evolution can account for human consciousness, the creation of the human mind, with its imagination and its search for beauty. He believes, instead, that there is a supreme intelligence “which wishes for communion with us….It draws us close to its mystery, and it grants us these remarkable minds, in order that we try to reach for it. It wants us to find it. It wants union with us.”

Not that Gilbert is directing this novel or her scientific heroine toward God. Far from it. For Wallace declares he is an atheist still, that by his supreme intelligence he does not mean God. And Alma herself carefully explains that “I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me.. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others—why they must dream up beautiful and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere….All I ever wanted to know was this world.”

Which leads me to conclude that this is an honest novel, as well as a beautiful, a fascinating one. Its heroine is a scientist, and its purpose is to explore both the world of science and the role of this woman in that science. But it also allows for the possibility of a world beyond science. Indeed, such a world was suggested much earlier, by the presence of Ambrose. His was not a scientific world, and barely a physical world. Not only in his unusual sex with Alma, but also with his admission that he saw himself as an angel.

Gilbert sets up all of this beautifully with the creation of these characters. Alma, as we said, is tall, has a stocky body, and is plain-faced, and we are continually reminded of this. Because this is to be a portrait of her intellectual life, of her scientific life, not of her emotional, romantic life. And her two “sisters” are not blood-sisters, but two young woman who play a certain role: Prudence, who is beautiful, and Retta, now flighty but who will go mad. Each is a contrast to Alma, and each is to play a role in Alma’s spinsterhood. And there is also the Dutch servant Hanneke, who will explain to Alma the events of her youth that led to that spinsterhood. It is so beautifully done, because what seemed so natural from Alma’s viewpoint in her youth now becomes, we see, the author’s strategy to focus the reader on, first, Alma’s true destiny as a scientist, and, then, on the author’s theme of the dichotomy between science and religion.

This novel works not only because Alma is such a complex woman, so intelligent, so confident in her convictions, in an era when women play a family role and are given no professional recognition, but also because her world of botany is made so real and so understandable to the lay reader. It begins in the world of flowers, so beautifully drawn by Ambrose, but ends up with the world of mosses. Alma will draw her scientific conclusions as she studies why some mosses thrive in a damp environment and others in a dry environment, why some will advance on a rock surface and others will withdraw, why some will have a soft texture and others are brittle, while some will advance or retreat quickly and others will do so slowly.

We, the reader, are as convinced of Alma’s professionalism as are, at the end, her fellow scientists. And yet all this information is fed to us naturally, as Alma makes new discoveries and expands her knowledge. What we are really following is Alma’s personal life, and yet part of this life is these scientific discoveries that deepen her intellectual life and deepen our understanding of her. It is only at the end that we realize they also deepen our understanding of this novel.

The New York Times Book Review heads its front-page appraisal with the title, The Botany of Desire. This is so accurate. For sexual desire is on the surface of Alma’s life, from her early self-pleasuring to her desire for her husband Ambrose. But the true desire in her life is her desire to penetrate the world of botany, how plants propagate, how they transform themselves, how they conquer the world about them, and how moss, regarded as one of the lowest forms of plant life, does so. It is a desire that earns Alma, a woman, the highest respect of scientific society. The female species that is regarded as the fountain of desire has transformed itself from the desire for physical pleasure into the desire for intellectual pleasure.

This is truly a remarkable novel, in its scientific scope, its geographic scope, and its philosophic scope. It begins as the story of a family, and ends as the story of mankind. (August, 2015)