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Re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Honor of its 50th Anniversary

October 11th, 2010

This past summer marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.  That’s pretty amazing.  Although I’d read the book several times in my life, it had been well over a decade (probably closer to fifteen years) since the last time, so last month I decided to re-read the novel.

What could I possibly say about this magnificent work that hasn’t already been said?  Every couple of years I see that it has topped a list, put together by one organization or another, of the best novels ever written, and I can’t say that I disagree.

The elegant prose wraps you in its warm embrace right from page one, paragraph one.  Harper Lee’s writing contains all of the wistfulness of one’s recollections of a childhood now long-passed, while also maintaining a wonderful good humor throughout.  I’d remembered just how sad the novel was, in places, but I hadn’t quite recalled just how funny it is.  (I love, for instance, Scout’s gentle chiding of her father’s “last will and testament diction.”)

I was also startled, as I re-read the book, by how well I remembered it even though it must have been at least fifteen years since I’d read it last.  I can’t remember the details of books that I read two or three months ago, and yet scene after scene in To Kill a Mockingbird were as fresh in my mind as if I’d just read them last week.  I can only marvel at the power of Harper Lee’s story that it made such an indelible impression on my memory.

Time Magazine‘s 1960 review of the book noted that Harper Lee’s tale “teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life.”  Having grown up in Connecticut in the ’70s and ’80s, I can’t really vouch for the novel’s verisimilitude.  But I can say that it FEELS real to me.  Scout and Jem are wonderfully realized children, and Ms. Lee’s ability to put us right into their heads (or, to use an iconic phrase from the novel, to let us stand in their shoes and walk around in them for a while) is extraordinary, and to my mind it’s the key to the novel’s enduring success.  Yes, the book is filled with striking episodes (Atticus’ shooting of the mad dog has always been a favorite scene of mine), and of course the sad story of Tom Robinson’s trial gives it a potent message about racism in America.  But to me all of that pales before the way that To Kill a Mockingbird allows us, in a way, to step back into our own childhoods as we spend three summers, and the two years in between ’em, with Scout and Jem.

And then, of course, there is Atticus.  Although he’s allowed a few moments of humanity (nine-year-old Scout is well aware of her father’s age), I can’t think of a more powerfully idealized father figure in all of literature.  Is it possible to read To Kill a Mockingbird without thinking about one’s own father, or considering what sort of parent you are or will be or hope to be?  Would that all the loved ones in our lives always remained the infallible figures we remember, when we saw the world through the rose-colored glasses of youth.  That may be an impossible dream (“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son” Atticus tells Jem.  “I wish I could keep ’em all away from you.  That’s never possible.”), but here in To Kill a Mockingbird we will always have Atticus, preserved as if in amber.

My prose pales before that of Harper Lee’s, so I’ll stop here.  If To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t the finest novel ever written, it’s certainly one of ’em.  If it’s been a while since you’ve last read it, maybe it’s time to give it another go.  I certainly don’t plan on waiting another decade before reading it again…

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