My disdain for great writers like Mark Twain and Harper Lee is over-exaggerated, and I aim to prove it.
I promised I’d follow up on your original piece that referenced the controversy in Duluth over the district’s decision to eliminate To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the English curriculum. I awoke to that news with disappointment, and I knew it would generate controversy.
Several friends expressed similar disappointment on social media, but I’d re-examined my own position by afternoon and expressed my renewed openness to the decision. In short, I’d considered the possibility that nostalgia for what these books meant to me personally drove my reaction as much as my concern for overzealous scrubbing of historical context from our literary tradition. They are great books, but I argued that other books were good too. It wasn’t the end of the world.
My argument didn’t go over very well. It also didn’t go over very well with my retired English teacher mom, who just sent me a bunch of clippings from the Duluth newspaper on the subject. Who sends newspaper clippings anymore? That’s almost a statement by itself.
It also didn’t go over very well with my very much not-retired English teacher brother-in-law, and we got into a discussion about what makes a classic a classic.
I’m not interested in advancing my futile argument further, but I am interested in clearing the record on my own personal attitude toward these books. So great was my concern for the fate of Mockingbird when I heard the news, in fact, that I started writing a song about it right away. The song became Atticus, which I recorded and just posted on my Bandcamp site.
This song is a bit of a nostalgic indulgence, with random and mostly meaningless recollections from the weirdness of our junior high school days. I love randomness and meaninglessness.
I believe I read Mockingbird in Mrs. Alfonsi’s class. Snapping her gum and swishing about in her black skirts and no-nonsense hair, Mrs. Alfonsi used Mockingbird to help us discuss issues of racism and gender stereotypes. We developed an understanding of cultural context, of the complexity of class, of justice and courage.
The book meant a lot to me. I read it to Yuo’s belly when she was pregnant with Quentin. If either of our kids had been born a girl, there is zero doubt that we would have named her Harper. I encouraged Quentin to read the book last year, and I think he read it just because he knew how moved I’d be. I think he liked it anyway.
I wrote this song over a couple of weeks and just recorded it. It’s a little silly. It plays on a joke I made to Yuo about that same time about a person we know who really admires Elon Musk.
“He wants to have Elon Musk’s baby,” I said.
It occurred to me that this was a ridiculous but succinct way to express a man’s unromantic admiration for another man. It also occurred to me that I wouldn’t be particularly bothered if somebody made that same joke about me and my admiration of Atticus Finch.
I have less nostalgia for Huck Finn, but I could probably spend a couple of pages on how Mr. Braafladt’s moustache suggested he wanted to have Mark Twain’s baby.