SUNDAY, June 24: My 9th grade English teacher gave me homework to do before I ever even met her, which probably set the stage for our relationship as a reluctant student vs. persistent instructor. I was enjoying my last summer before entering high school and trying not to think too much about crossing the next milestone of my education at a new school in the neighboring county so it gave me no great pleasure when I found out that she had assigned us a list of books to read over the summer. Don’t misunderstand me, I love to read; in fact, it has always been a passion of mine and by this, my fourteenth year, I had already read Gone with the Wind, Roots, Centennial and several other very long books. I think it used to drive my father crazy that I would waste no opportunity of time given to me to devour page after page of material, including family meal time at the table when I could get away with it. My brain worked differently back then (or maybe I should just say it worked a lot better) because I could read and still keep up with the conversation, inserting comments whenever I needed to. Given my love of reading, this summer assignment shouldn’t have concerned me at all except for one problem…I had never heard of a single book on the list.
Many books I read, some very good ones, get read one time and go on the shelf where it sits for years untouched until donated or disposed of in a yard sale. I used to swear I would never resort to listening to a book on tape or reading an electronic version, both seemingly an anathema to a true book person that enjoyed the heft and feel of a good hardbound volume as well as the sound of turning the pages to discover what lay just around the corner. An iPad changed all that because I could carry my library with me, listen to music while I read and help save the planet by sparing a few trees…also, as my eyesight….matured….I could make the font bigger if necessary….but some books are sacred and can only be appreciated by holding the written word in hand and one of those books would turn out to be on that summer reading list.
Two of them, in fact, stand out in my memory, one because it was so good and the other because it was so bad; the rest have faded into the cobwebs of my mind, awaiting the day when something will trigger a memory and remind me what they were. I’m glad I read the good one first because if I had read the other one to begin with, I doubt I would have pushed on to the next as it would have colored my judgment of all the others. The first one was Harper Lee’s immortal To Kill a Mockingbird, a one-hit-wonder of a book which, as it turned out, ranks in the top five listing of “best books I ever read” and which doesn’t stand much chance of losing that place nor its permanent spot on my overburdened bookshelf. It is one of those books that I do take off the shelf and reread every few years and I always find something new in it that I missed before. It also has the distinction of being the only volume published by the author in her life-at least so far. The other book was penned by none other than Ray Bradbury, who is considered to be one of the greatest science fiction writers of all times and who has published essays, articles and books since 1941, one of which would make its way into my hands in the summer of 1980, a book called Dandelion Wine. Those that know me well would find it hard to believe that I was so opinionated back then as to tell my English teacher, when she asked me for my opinion of that book, that I thought Bradbury must have been drinking the subject of his title when he wrote it. She obviously considered me a lost cause but told me that I should read it again in twenty years and see if I felt the same way. I still had much to learn about lost causes.
Mockingbird, on the other hand, drew me in from almost the first page. I could relate to the small town of Maycomb, Alabama and the characters that Harper Lee breathed life into were rich in detail and depth. Even though the book centered around a criminal act that was wrongfully blamed on an innocent man, this was not the total substance of the book-the back stories, side stories and everyday goings on of the town and its people filled every nook and cranny with detail so that you were not merely an observer to the story but a part of it. More than that, it was written by a Southerner and set in the Deep South, the poor, downtrodden, Depression-era south where few had much to brag about. It was place where honor was still a pillar of strength that lifted their society up, much like the sturdy white columns that supported the many local plantation mansions that were still in existence at the time….but times, however, were changing and like many of these relics, neglect and termites doing to them what poverty and ignorance was doing to society. It was a time and place where family was still an institution of a society governed by an unwritten code known by all and rarely ever breached. I enjoyed the nostalgic feel of it, the familiarity and the association I felt to some of the characters in the story. I also enjoyed how it stimulated that part of my brain that has always been fascinated with the law and the courtroom and no written character embodied the law and the true purpose for it better than the character of Atticus Finch.
Much has been written of Atticus over the years and his role as the White Knight of Justice charging into a battle he could not win against a social system that had carried on for seventy years longer than the war that was supposed to have ended it. For me though, he personified the core characteristics of a Southerner that I am glad to say have still carried on into this century, even as other, less desirable attributes of the past few centuries are finally being laid to rest. Atticus was first and foremost a man of integrity and he let his conscience be his guide, not just in the practice of law but in the raising of his two motherless children, in his dealings with the local town folk and in his refusal to judge a person based on archaic social prejudices. He also possessed a degree of modesty that shielded him from being judged by most others for having an advanced education at a time when illiteracy was often the rule and not the exception….and then there was honor, something he had in no short supply. Honor, that two-edged sword that has propelled many a Southerner to stand up for what is right and moral, just as it has also condemned many to die fighting for lost causes simply because to withdraw would be a dishonorable thing to do. Those three…integrity, modesty and honor…are qualities of character that set him apart from many others and they are qualities I have always found ideal, not just in southerners but in men and women in general. Atticus possessed all those qualities but when combined with his greatest talent and his absolute belief in the law, they made him more than an ordinary man; they made him a great man.
His talent, of course, was the gift of rhetoric, or the art of using words and language to persuade others and to motivate them into action. I’ve always thought that rhetoric was an effective tool for any lawyer, politician, speaker or pastor to possess and here in the South, it has been raised to an art form that is as celebrated as it is lampooned. It has deeply established Southern roots; in fact, Southern rhetoric is very different than it is in most other places, having been born in the spirituality of the tent revivals and camp meetings when the righteous would go and hang on every cadence of speech, mesmerized by the rise and fall of the speaker’s voice, listening to every turn of phrase interjected with all the requisite hyperbole and pleonastic phrases that made the speech memorable and the speaker completely right in what he was saying. While Atticus Finch certainly didn’t go to the extremes of the evangelist, he certainly knew the art of using words and he chose his words wisely which is why they are memorable to me today.
I can certainly claim an understanding of the use of rhetorical terms as I have used quite a few of them in this essay. The ability to use rhetoric in writing or speaking, from a Southern perspective, can make a lot of difference in the perceptions we have of those who have it versus those who don’t. One only has to look at the differences between the speechmaking style of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for example. While both are intelligent, well-educated men, Clinton’s rhetorical, evangelistic style of speaking carried well with voters whereas Bush’s more direct, staccato style painted him in an altogether different light.
During the trial of the accused, Atticus combined logic with rhetorical phrases in pursuit of his other notable attribute, his idealism and love of the law. Even though he knew the law that governs society and the courts that adjudicate it were imperfect, he did not stop believing in its power to equalize what was unjust. Using his words and rhetoric to great effect, he illustrated this when he said to the jury “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal; there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal”.
Through that book, Atticus became a personal hero and role model to me, even if he was fighting a lost cause by taking on a case that he knew he could not win, to defend a black man wrongfully charged with the rape and assault of a white woman in the South of the 1930’s. That Atticus was destined to lose this case was something known only to Atticus himself and certainly not to his children or this reader who was hanging on his every word from the opening statement to the closing summation. When the jury delivered their verdict of guilty, I was as stunned and disbelieving as Jem Finch, the older child of Atticus who, like me, was at that age where you have one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood. The child in me saw only the rightness of the cause and the assuredness that justice must prevail, whereas the adult in me saw the realities of the world.
Such was the power of that book, that it could make you feel the emotions of the characters within its pages and remind you that in life, even in the face of all good virtues, what is right doesn’t always triumph over what is wrong. Did his words and rhetoric convince the jury of the innocence of the accused and place the blame squarely where it really belonged? I think it probably did convince some of them but at the same time, their adherence to the code that existed at the time was something they probably felt honor-bound to uphold. See, there’s that double-edged sword again. Atticus fought for a lost cause that was the right thing to do; the jury fought for the wrong one and in this case, right didn’t win the day….but at the end of the book, there was some justice to be found.
I learned a lot from reading that book…probably more than my teacher ever intended since the assignment to read it was based upon its merits as a work of literature and not as a guidebook on “how to learn to be a good Southerner” or “how to use rhetoric when making your case”…but I have never regretted having read it. I never thanked her for assigning it to me to read that summer either, although as an honorable Southerner, I should have. I suppose I just couldn’t get past Dandelion Wine. In any case, I’m about ten years overdue on the assignment she gave me to read that book again in twenty years and see if I still feel the same way about it. I guess it’s time I fired up the iPad and gave it a download….and to Mrs. C, thank you.