There is something about the Deep South in the United States that takes on a personality of its own. Achingly and unrelentingly hot both in temperature and demeanour, there are certain stories that could never occur in any other location. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood left me with that feeling as a reader. Capote’s non-fiction novel seems as though it could never have taken place anywhere but Kansas. And so I was left with the same feeling by the tale written by Capote’s childhood chum, Harper Lee. I often find it fascinating when great literary talents not only know one another but are indeed great friends. I have written about my eternal fascination of the quadrumvirate of Hitchens, Rushdie, Amis and McEwan. Equally I find the friendship of Lee and Capote just as compelling. What is even more compelling is they didn’t become pals in adulthood but share the same unique southern childhood. I must admit I did look for clues to their mateship in their respective prose, particularly in the relationship between narrator Scout and her pal Dill.
Much has been written and said about To Kill a Mockingbird and I am very late to the party. It is without question a very important book and certainly captures a place in world history that lay the foundations for some of the most important social movements of the twentieth century. But while the book is important – like my view on The Catcher in the Rye and even Lord of the Flies – I feel I have read it too late to really love the prose and engage with the narrator Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch. Scout’s view of the world is a little too naïve and unsophisticated for me to have much empathy for her as a character and I was not very vested in her as she navigated the course of her six to eight year old life. And while Scout is seemingly smarter that some of her peers and begins to understand some very adult and difficult issues, she was one of the least interesting characters in the novel for me.
But who I found incredibly engaging, if very distant, is Scout and Jem’s father Atticus Finch. Like many fathers of his generation, Atticus is distant both physically and emotionally. An older single man raising two unworldly children trying to understand the very complex sphere around them, he becomes the centre of the novel’s plot and morality. In many respects Atticus is not only father to two biological children, but the metaphorical father of the fictional town of Maycomb. While Atticus is older than many in the novel, his attitudes, particularly to the twenty-first century reader, are very modern and well ahead of his time. Atticus believes in fairness and justice and is willing to fight for the underdog through intellect and calm restraint.
Atticus quotes Thomas Jefferson in his seminal closing arguments in court. He says, ‘we know that all men are not created equal in the sense that some people would have us believe – some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others – some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men…but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal’. He professed not to be idealist but in many ways he is for his time.
This is one of those novels that everyone should read at some stage of their life. It is my view however that this novel should be read sooner rather than later.