top five

Fun times! Fun times! If Harper Lee did, in fact, with her faculties intact, authorize the publication of Go Set a Watchman, I, personally, chalk it up to a bit of bitter (smart, pointed) Southern white woman prankishness as seen in Flannery O’Conner’s closing of A Good Man is Hard To Find: “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” /  “Some fun!” Bobby Lee said. / “Shut up, Bobby Lee” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

I think of the dopes who named their kids after Atticus. Really? Of all the books in American Lit., I do not enjoy teaching To Kill a Mockingbird for the simple reason that Atticus Finch – from the time I read the book in high school (1990, perhaps?) – strikes me as patronizing (even Gregory Peck’s portrayal can’t save the character from this assessment). Scout’s ok, but she isn’t enough to redeem the adult characters in this exchange:

When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn’t interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

As though those birds, and the people for whom they act as metaphors in the novel, only exist to torment or entertain. Not that I find anything wrong with the book itself.

But The Bluest Eye is better. REDACTED and I had a wonderful chat about this latest convergence, and, subsequently, I realized that The Bluest Eye does what Mockingbird does but better: Claudia and Frieda are positioned inside their community rather than at the margins like Scout and Jem; the community itself must wrangle with Pecola’s situation rather than having white men of authority like Atticus and the Sheriff do it for them; and the shifting perspective throughout the novel gives us a fuller picture of how (if not why), so I don’t imagine we’ll see a prequel/sequel corrective to The Bluest Eye any time soon because all of the characters in that novel exist in the gray area where we humans live (rather than, for the shallow reader of To Kill a Mockingbird, in the idealizing eyes of a child).

Anyway, Lucas is reading Invisible Man, and I keep telling him to watch out for all mentions of The Grandfather. I love that old man so! and the way he haunts his grandson. Me to Lucas: “He’s my favorite character in all of literature. / Second Place is Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus. Third Jordan Baker in Gatsby. / I need two more. / Shadrack, Sula. / Narrator of Bluest Eye. / Claudia MacTeer.”

For your reading pleasure, the following are the passages wherein these characters won my undying devotion:

The Grandfather in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” They thought the old man had gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of men. The younger children were rushed from the room, the shades drawn and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it sputtered on the wick like the old man’s breathing. “Learn it to the younguns,” he whispered fiercely; then he died.

But my folks were more alarmed over his last words than over his dying. It was as though he had not died at all, his words caused so much anxiety.

Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Lucius. Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?

Aaron. Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day—and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,—
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

regarding Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever shrewd men and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn’t able to endure being at a disadvantage, and given this unwillingness I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard jaunty body.

regarding Shadrack in Sula by Toni Morrison
Like moonlight stealing under a window shade an idea insinuated itself: his earlier desire to see his own face. He looked for a mirror; there was none. Finally, keeping his hands carefully behind his back he made his way to the toilet bowl and peeped in. The water was unevenly lit by the sun so he could make nothing out. Returning to his cot he took the blanket and covered his head, rendering the water dark enough to see his reflection. There in the toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish apprehension that he was not real — that he didn’t exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more.

Claudia MacTeer in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
I destroyed white baby dolls.

But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me: the secret of the magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say, “Awwwww,” but not for me? The eye slide of black women as they approached them on the street, and the possessive gentleness of their touch as they handled them.

If I pinched them, their eyes—unlike the crazed glint of the baby doll’s eyes—would fold in pain, and their cry would not be the sound of an icebox door, but a fascinating cry of pain. When I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested, my shame floundered about for refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love. It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned much later to worship her, just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement.