Harper Lee, an unhappy life

(Note: be sure to see Kilroy M.’s interesting praise for Catcher in the Rye as a book that speaks to conservatives.)

Ben W. writes:

In high school I was forced to read two books, ranked as great novels, which I thought were terrible—“The Catcher In The Rye,” by J.D. Salinger, and “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee.

One day, seeing as how I wasn’t taking “Mockingbird” seriously, the teacher asked me what I found amusing about it, and I told her the patently obvious ploy of the “falsely” accused Negro I was supposed to sympathize with. Later when I saw the movie, I thought the only thing more cloying than the novel itself is the act Gregory Peck was fashioning for himself as the quintessential American “fair-minded,” liberal, persona.

Over the years I wondered what ever became of Harper Lee. Like Salinger, she had refused to be interviewed. Now I know—she became a miserable person. I guess the liberalism that elevated Peck into a paragon didn’t do anything for her.

I remember how Carol Iannone had deconstructed the film “Inherit the Wind” and its spurious contribution to American culture. I regard “To Kill A Mockingbird” to be in the same category of literature in its relation to civil rights as “Inherit the Wind” is to biology and education.

LA replies:

The article, in the Mail, shows how Harper Lee had a very unhappy and troubled childhood, and that she continued to be unhappy and troubled as an adult, and that much of her novel—her only novel—is a reflection of her childhood traumas.

Also, let’s remember where Gregory Peck, with his stiffly righteous liberal persona, ended up: with his despicable attack on Robert Bork which forever tainted Peck and, to my mind, consigned him to the same neighborhood of liberal hell as Ted Kennedy.

Brandon F. writes:

I heard a story on NPR a few weeks ago about Mockingbird. There was a mention of how black students of today don’t like the story because it portrays blacks as submissive. At least the accused man, Tom Robinson, is very meek, humble, and reverent to whites.

We watched the movie as a family recently and I have to say that notwithstanding the liberal themes it is a fine story. There is no questioning of the social hierarchy portrayed in the movie, and old fashioned values are prevalent. The acting is superb.

Gintas writes:

From the article:

For much of the past 50 years, she has shunned the formality and racism of her native Alabama to make her home in a tiny flat on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Truly an unhinged woman.

David B. writes:

All of my liberal friends just loved To Kill A Mockingbird, both novel and film. When I told them that it was a fictional story that did not happen in real life, they would look dumbfounded.

When a black man is accused of raping (or raping and murdering) a white woman, the defense is often “it was consensual,” right out of To Kill A Mockingbird. Even the ringleader in the Knoxville Atrocity and his attorneys used this defense.

John Dempsey writes:

You wrote:

“Also, let’s remember where Gregory Peck, with his stiffly righteous liberal persona, ended up: with his despicable attack on Robert Bork which forever tainted Peck and, to my mind, consigned him to the same neighborhood of liberal hell as Ted Kennedy.”

That’s funny. I was reading an article just this morning that made me think of the devastation that’s been induced by Ted Kennedy. It made me wonder about the special place in hell he must now be enjoying. I was thinking of somewhere like Kibera.

Rose writes:

To Kill a Mockingbird has always struck me as a very middlebrow book for very middlebrow people, but I’ve never seen anything objectionable about the story. It is set in a time period when the Ku Klux Klan was still a respectable and powerful organization rather than this, and undoubtedly blacks were sometimes grievously wronged.

Lee, in fact, had a much more nuanced view of racial discrimination than today’s liberals. At one point in the book, Atticus’s young son is forced to read to a morphine-addicted old woman as a way to distract her during her withdrawal. It’s said that she complains throughout about what a “nigger-lover” Atticus is for defending Tom, yet when she finally kicks her drug habit, Atticus praises her courage and tells his son to learn from her. So while obviously neither Atticus nor Lee agreed with the old woman’s views on blacks, she was still treated by both as a sympathetic and admirable, albeit flawed, person. I think this would be impossible today, when having your character use the term “nigger” is the equivalent of making them torture a puppy.

(I have to add that where Lee loses me is when she has Atticus say of the old woman that what she had done was what “real courage” is, not “a man with a gun.” I’m sorry Atticus, but in a few years after your story takes place many oh-so-lacking-in-courage men with guns will be over in Europe fighting and dying so you can sit safely in quaint Dixieland and judge them inadequate. Hey, maybe we should send hyped-up crones to fight the Nazis instead of men with guns?)

Roger G. writes:

I’m so glad to see someone agree with me. I’ve always considered both books to be bilge.

July 1

Jeff S. writes:

In the discussion on To Kill a Mockingbird, I am surprised no one has mentioned Truman Capote and his connection to Harper Lee. In the filmed version of Capote’s adventures in Kansas doing research for In Cold Blood Capote and Lee were portrayed as childhood friends (they may have been related) who spent a lot of time in each others company as children. I believe Capote was the model for the “Dill” character. In the movie that was the kid with the big glasses who ran around in short pants the whole movie. The actress who played “Scout,” Mary Badham, gave one of the more naturalistic performances I’ve ever seen from a child. No doubt “Scout” was Lee’s view of herself to some significant degree. In the movie Capote is shown to be mortified his childhood friend has become a BIG WRITER while he still stuggles to establish himself. Lee joins Capote in Kansas to serve as sort of a cultural buffer between Capote and the more Earthly folk of Kansas. When I would occasionally see To Kill a Mockingbird through the years I was always puzzled that I couldn’t recall seeing Mary Badham in anything else. She had been so good in the movie. When I finally got around to researching it on the net, I saw she appeared in, I think, one other movie and, more interestingly to me, she was featured in the very last episode of The Twilight Zone. After that she disappeared (in acting terms) for about 40 years before taking a small role in one of her brother’s (director John Badham) films. Then, back to retirement. Compared to Vietnam-forward era films whatever socio-political undercurrents running through the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird are present, are pretty damn subtle to my eyes. They don’t distract me from the narrative flow of the movie, and that’s enough for me.

July 1

Carol Iannone writes:

A writer in the WSF agrees with one of your readers.

Also, In the June American Conservative, there is an appreciation of the book. The writer argues that it really praises the virtues of small town South.

Kilroy M. writes from Australia:

Readers seem to have been more affected by To Kill a Mockingbird than Catcher in the Rye. As Ben W.’s initial critique was directed at both books, I would like to come to the defense of Salinger’s book, which I must have read about a dozen times. I never tire of it. It resonates with me because I strongly identify with the main character. He hates the “phoniness” that surrounds him in the world. I find this a perfect analogy to the lies upon which modern liberalism is built. He is constantly slapped down by his life experiences, which can be compared to the frustration that a traditionalist feels at having to deal with the “pop” culture that is just unavoidable today and permeates everything. His ultimate desire is to protect children while they play in a field of rye, from falling over an invisible cliff (hence the title). I found that a very powerful scene in the book. It occurs only in the mind of this hapless character, never in the reality of the narrative. When I picture it, it seems to me to be almost Arcadian. There is a lot of yearning, nostalgia and a love of one’s people in that book that I, as a conservative, really enjoyed. I have my tattered copy permanently on the table near the bed, not on the shelf, because I know I will be reading from it again, sooner rather than later. I don’t know anything about the history of Salinger’s life. But if objections go to the politics of the text, I don’t understand why somebody would dislike the book on ideological grounds.

Sophia A. writes:

regarding Harper Lee”s unhappy life, most writers have unhappy lives. In fact, most people do.

What a way to judge a book!

LA replies:

I think you’re somewat missing the point of the Mail article. It is saying that Harper Lee’s fictional world was an unconscious projection of her personal and family traumas onto society. And that is very relevant to liberalism generally, which is often a projection of merely personal resentments (typically resentments against one’s father) onto society and the cosmos.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mockingbird is not a good book in its own right. But it does bring into question the validity of Lee’s picture of society.

- end of initial entry -

Brandon F. writes:

I couldn’t help but think again about the To Kill a Mockingbird discussion and it’s relationship to the content of this post.

The accused negro in the story, Tom Robinson, represents the liberal view of black men rather than the traditional white southern one. The southern whites are portrayed as ignorant and violent while the blacks are meek and harmless poor folk. It makes me wonder how much this kind of noble savage myth plays a role in today’s white liberal view of black men.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 30, 2010 07:07 PM | Send

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