Upstream. A Mohawk Valley Blogzine.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Kathryn McCary Tries But Fails To Kill A Mockingbird

Just when you get around to reading a book, and you conclude that the book is one of the best of the many thousands that you have read, some would-be literary critic comes along and says it doesn’t have any literary value. That’s what happened in Sunday’s Gazette when Kathryn McCary of Schenectady, a regular contributor to The Sunday Gazette, wasted a lot of space trashing To Kill A Mockingbird.

While I had seen the film version several times, I never got around to reading the book until last Summer. Harper Lee, the author, was only 32 years old when she submitted the book and 34 years old when it was published. It was the first and only book she ever wrote, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

McCary argues that the book should never have won the Pulitzer Prize when the likes of William Faulkner, John Barth and Flannery O’Connor were writing at the same time. I would give my right arm to write a book like To Kill A Mockingbird. Although I have enjoyed some of O’Connor’s stories, I wouldn’t give the little finger on my left hand to write like she does. The same goes for Barth and Faulkner.

My guess is that McCary is one of those literary snobs who feels that if a book is popular, it can’t possible be literature--that if it is to be literature, it must be opaque, difficult to read and only enjoyed by a few people. The impetus for McCary’s opinion piece was Schenectady County’s “One County, One Book” program. The “One County, One Book” or “One City, One Book” programs are not new to places like Saratoga Springs and Rochester, however, this is Schenectady’s first year in the program. The idea is to get as many people in a city or a county to read a particular book and get together and discuss it. Supposedly, this will foster a sense of community.

McCary would have been better off if she had challenged the whole idea of the “One County, One Book” program. The idea that one book can foster community is naive. So few people read today, that it is impossible for a book to create much of a sense of community except among those who read. And Ms. McCary’s op-ed piece demonstrates clearly how difficult it is to get a large number of the small number of people who not just can read, but who do read, to agree on the kind of book that will foster community.

The truth is that the days of one book fostering community are almost gone, except in the Muslim world where The Koran is a powerful uniting force. The Bible created a powerful sense of community among a large number of Americas in the 1700s and 1800s, but its waning influence now only unites a minority.

You might say that Mein Kampf fostered community in Nazi Germany, but hardly anyone every read it. If you have ever read it, it is extremely difficult to read. And it was Hitler’s oratorical and political skills that united Germany into one community, not his writings. If more people in England and America had read Mein Kampf before Hitler came to power and taken what it said seriously, maybe the evil community that Hitler created via his oratory and evil genius would never have come into being.

In attacking Harper Lee, McCary was doing what Atticus Finch said not to do in the novel--she was shooting at a mockingbird. The mockingbird’s only purpose in life is to sing. Harper was a mockingbird with only one song. She sang it beautifully, and she is one mockingbird that the literary critics will never kill.


  • Nicely said, Dan.

    By Anonymous Lake George Guy, at 2:02 AM  

  • Thank you for this post. I was outraged when I read that article in the Gazette! We went through someting like this a couple of years ago, when a one term English teacher made her class (including our oldest) hate the book, by her method of picking it to pieces and forcing them to read it one page at a time. I actually requested a conference and pointed out what she was doing, although I doubt that it made any difference.
    I made sure our younger kids read it BEFORE some teacher spoiled it for them, as I did when I was young.
    I love your definition of what snobs think of as a classic!

    By Blogger threecollie, at 6:50 AM  

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