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A READING LIFE

'Mockingbird' and why it still sings

Here in Phoenix, I teach a three-semester novel-writing course. Twelve students sign on for the long haul. We gather our few possessions and our dodgy maps, shrug back tales we've heard of terrible weather, monsters from the deep, and shipwrecks, tread up the gangplank and set out.

Along the way, each semester, we read a novel together. Our classes begin with discussion of that novel, not as it might be taught in literature courses -- though that forms a part of the discussion -- but from our vantage point as writers, altogether a different thing.

First semester of the current voyage, we read Walter Tevis's ''The Man Who Fell to Earth." Because it's a personal favorite, sure, but also for the chance it gave me to talk about genre fictions, about arealist forms and their intrinsic power. The second semester, we pecked away at Albert Camus's ''The Stranger," comparing it often with Tevis's novel and talking about how ideas may become, or fail to become, good writing. For the third semester, I opened the choice to general suggestions. The novel chosen was ''To Kill a Mockingbird."

I had not read this novel, I explained to my crew of 12, since it came out. Waiting for the gasps to subside -- they had had little idea that I was that old -- I wondered what exactly I would encounter. Fifteen or so at the time, living in a Southern town not unlike Maycomb, I was dating a girl whose uncle would pad silently into the living room as we sat watching TV and stand in a corner or doorway for hours, never speaking, never registering anyone's presence. He had been that way most of his life.

So what would I make of this novel after all these years? At the time, I had also been reading, rather passionately, Thomas Wolfe, whose work I now find all but unreadable. And I am not just a different person than I was then: I have in the interim been several different people.

For the syllabus, I outlined discussion points for the novel, things a writer might wish to consider, such as this novel's place in the subgenre of Southern literature and the degree to which it might be construed as ''message" fiction. How Harper Lee goes about incorporating regional history into her tale. How important to a full reading and comprehension of the novel might be a consideration of the era in which it was written and published. Or, still more writerly: Lee's choice of a child as point of view, our knowledge that the story is being told to us by that child in maturity, and the double vision this affords.

All this in addition, of course, to the usual writerly business of creating characters, moving them from place to place, putting flock on the wallpaper, getting cogs and teeth of plot into gums of text, and so on.

In the period from 1895 to 1975, I discovered as I researched the novel, ''To Kill a Mockingbird" was the seventh best-selling book in the United States and the third best-selling novel. A 1991 survey conducted jointly by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress named it second only to the Bible as the book ''that made the most difference" in the lives of 5,000 respondents.

Obviously, this bird has legs.

Writing is mostly about giving information: choosing details and incidents, how those get passed to the reader, the various wrappings, stresses, and underscoring put to them. And the first thing I remarked in my rereading was how effortlessly Lee achieves this, telling us who these people are, where and how they live, Maycomb's history and caste system, its citizens' homespun gentilesse. There's just this voice in your ear, unhurried and talking to you personally, it seems; then before you know it, the whole narrative's in place.

Interestingly enough -- and perhaps the surest measure of how ''natural" is Lee's artifice -- my students complained that, try as they might to read the novel as writers, to stand apart and observe the craft and clockwork of it, they kept getting pulled back into the story.

Part of my job, of course, is to act as devil's advocate. So, periodically, as we toured three to four chapters a week, I'd string barbed wire across the trail.

Is Atticus Finch perhaps just a bit too good? I'd ask. A touch too saintly, too much the community's great protector? Does he seem like anyone you know? Congruently, would it be more interesting, not to mention more realistic, if Bob Ewell were not so unremittingly bad? And if it were not so patently clear that Tom Robinson is innocent of so much as a sneeze?

The novel, I would point out, is set at a remove: in the past, and in what might be considered an exotic location. To what degree might this setting, this distance, contribute toward making the whole thing safe for the reader, reinforcing the sense that he or she is different?

Following close upon that, I'd come back again and again to the observation that, while popular forms of literature tend to reinforce received wisdom, more complex or ''serious" literature tends toward what Lionel Trilling calls an adversary intent, actively questioning that wisdom and throwing into doubt all we ''know" to be true. In this regard, I asked, does ''To Kill a Mockingbird" finally challenge -- or comfort -- the reader?

Calm seas and prosperous voyage? You bet. Some days. Serpents and high winds? Those, too. It's been a long trip, and we had lots to talk about.

None of which is to take away from the magnificent voice, marvelous setting, or often-exquisite humor of the novel. It is a fine one, well deserving to endure, with truckloads of technique to offer the writer who reads carefully.

Not surprisingly, the novel read by that 15-year-old in a small town in Arkansas in the 1950s and the one read by a 60-ish, 40-year-veteran writer in Phoenix are quite different books. Both are excellent.

James Sallis's latest novel, ''Cripple Creek," will be out from Walker/Bloomsbury in April.

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