There’s something special about contemporary American literature, and I might as well admit from the start that I have a soft spot for 20th and 21st century American literature. I’ve had it for many years now and it’s a love story that’s getting stronger and stronger for every tome that passes through my hands. I have long thought about what it is that make it so appealing to me, but I struggle to find the core reason. Can it be that there is something special that you don’t get in European literature? That there seems to be a longing, a fight and a strive to create a better world. A fight to find an identity, whether it’s a self, a family identity or the identity of a state or a nation. Coming from a literary tradition more than 2000 years old I find the intellectual analyzing from the authors incredibly interesting and it creates a web of thoughts and questions we should all ask ourselves, Americans and Europeans alike.
Mind you, I don’t talk about Dan Brown or John Grisham here. Authors like Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, John Updike and Jonathan Franzen are the ones, among many others, I refer to. Having said that, The Runaway Jury and The da Vinci Code have something to give us readers too. No question about it. Just not, in my view, as much substantial as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch 22 or The Corrections. And Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird is the latest in the line of books I have just finished.
Harper Lee once described her Pulitzer Prize winning novel as “a simple love story”. It is indeed just that, but it is also so much more. There are depths to the story that stay with you for a long time. The moral of this little town in the Deep South is eccentric, humorous and sometimes violent. But most importantly, it is deeply prejudiced.
Set in the 1930s, the story seen through the eyes of a child tells us about the severe injustice towards the Black population, how they were treated like dirt but employed by many as housekeepers, janitors etc. The few Caucasian that stand up for their coloured neighbours rights are mocked and banned from the social circuit. This moral dilemma creates a huge turmoil in nine year old Scout Finch when her father, the town lawyer Atticus Finch is taking on the alleged rape case against Tom Robinson, a Black man who is accused of raping the daughter of a redneck alcoholic living behind the town dump. Regardless of Tom Robinson’s obvious innocence proved in Court by Atticus Finch the jury decide against his favour and Tom Robinson is sent away to prison awaiting the chair. With this as a leading story within the story, Harper Lee manages to point a finger at all of us, forcing us to think twice about the world we live in almost hundred years later. Has it changed much? What do we do to create a fair world for all? Scout’s brother Jem has an exchange-of-words with his father just after the trial is over, and there are many thoughts that should echo recognition with us all today.
“You know rape’s a capital offense in Alabama,” said Atticus. “Yessir, but the jury didn’t have to give him death – if they wanted to they could’ve gave him twenty years.” “Given,” said Atticus. “Tom Robinson’s a colored man, Jem. No jury in this part of the world’s going to say, ‘We think you’re guilty, but not very,’ on a charge like that. It was either a straight acquittal or nothing.” Jem was shaking his head. “I know it’s not right, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong – maybe rape shouldn’t be a capital offence….” Atticus dropped his newspaper beside his chair. He said he didn’t have any quarrel with the rape statute, none whatever, but he did have misgivings when the state asked for and the jury gave a death penalty on purely circumstantial evidence.
“But lots of folks have been hung – hanged – on circumstantial evidence,” said Jem. “I know, and lots of ‘em probably deserved it, too – but in the absence of eye-witnesses there’s always a doubt, sometimes only the shadow of a doubt. The law says ‘reasonable doubt,’ but I think a defendant’s entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There’s always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s innocent.”
The serious side to the story is surrounded by the cotton fields, corn flour bread and summer heat of the American South. You can almost smell the new baked bread eaten before everyone’s off to church on Sunday, you can hear the old Ford pick-up trucks driving along the dusty road leading in to Maycomb, the sleepy Southern town where the novel is set. That Harper Lee’s book has become a classic is very well deserved and I wish everyone would read it. Not just for the thought provoking content surrounding Tom Robinson’s case, but also for the nostalgia and love to ones childhood it creates. How simple life could be, with small joys and pleasures, but also how complex the grown up world seemed. Not that it seems less complex when one is adult, but the book reminds us about that the small things and the simple pleasures can sometimes be the best and most rewarding.