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01 May 2015

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I read Catcher, Huck Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird in a fit of nostalgia a few months ago. Conclusion? Holden > Scout/Jem/Atticus > Huck. Though I now contend that Mockingbird is the greatest novel in American letters.

Brandon,
You ready for Harper Lee's sequel, then?
I read "Mockingbird" in high school and can honestly say I don't remember one thing about it. Perhaps is time for a re-read, but who has the time? And Huck Finn I've never read at all. Sigh. Too many books, too little time.

I don't know about the sequel. I'll probably skip it. It's not new, she wrote it a long time ago, maybe before Mockingbird, if I remember correctly. I suspect Lee has a basement full of manuscripts. It's easy to say the new book is a cash grab, but she can't be hurting for money; Mockingbird has paid her an average of over $9,000 a day since she published it. She may be rare in that she never needed, or wanted, to make the kind of money Mockingbird hauled. Money aside, she can't top Mockingbird artistically anyway.

I suppose Huck Finn is worth a read. I'll never forget my high school teacher explaining that if we read aloud, we can't say the N-word, she doesn't like it and it offends her, blah blah blah. 1) I don't think Twain is at all humorous, and Huck Finn is supposed to be funny. 2) I barely even noticed the stream of N-words (160+ or 213, depending on the source). 3) It's been argued that Twain never mentions Huck's race, which led someone to publish Finn, where Huck is depicted as bi-racial. Actually, Twain (or rather the slave Jim) does mention that Huck is white. It's still a pretty controversial book because of the arguments for and against it, whether it's racist or not. The racial overtones are pretty mild, believe it or not. The problem is, both defenders and detractors are trying too hard. The problem is that it's impossible to go into it without already having an opinion on whether it's racist trash or not.

Huh. Brandon, I'd reverse your equation completely.

I love Huck Finn, the book and the character. I think Twain is both hilarious (although much funnier in his essays than his fiction) and savagely furious at the hypocrisy that characterized his (and sadly, still our) American society. The final section of the novel is weaker than the first two thirds, mostly because he allowed his anger (epitomized in the scathing portrait of Tom Sawyer, White Savior) to trump his artistry. But if there is anywhere in American literature a moment of pure-quill Grace (in every sense of the word) to trump Huck's "All right then, I'll go to Hell", I've yet to encounter it.

I love Mockingbird for Scout, pure and simple. Scout is me at that age, both in her virtues and faults (not to mention her passion for books). Oh, and Lee had a gift for the telling detail that really captured a culture -- I'll never forget her depiction of Southern ladies as sugar doughnuts, layered delicately with powder and sweat. I'd highly recommend the terrific analysis of Mockingbird's masterly prose and subtle insidious racism here: http://kitwhitfield.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/first-sentences-to-kill-mockingbird-by.html

As for Catcher in the Rye... well, I loved Salinger with all the passion of an acolyte when I was in my teens and twenties. I used to carry NINE STORIES in my backpack, and pull it out to peruse, sighing, "How true, how true..." I pretty much had FRANNY AND ZOOEY memorized. And yet, even then...

... well, I thought that Holden Caulfield was an overprivileged ass. Obviously, YMMV.

Hapax,

Another dear friend has been trying for years to get me to read Mark Twain. I have to, I know, it just always seems like a lot to do...

What I need is a good book club to read Huck Finn with, or to take a class on it, or something. Maybe a study guide. Something to give me some context.

Well, I said I loved Holden, but I didn't mention that once I met Zachary Martin Glass, I forgot all about Holden.

I'd argue that Holden is not an overprivileged ass. That's exactly what he hates, what he rails against. Ultimately, Holden wants to make it on his own terms. He flunks out of every private school and he isn't expecting or asking anyone to clean up his messes. Holden is the best antidote to the Facebook/Instagram/me me me generation.

I read that Mockingbird essay. Sigh. I wholeheartedly disagree with the author. He's expecting too much: "it's also a book that suppresses anger at injustice." I wonder if Whitfield read the same book I did. He's taking issue with things that DON'T happen ("the book focuses on the affectionate relationship between Calpurnia and the Finches and nobody, black or white, points out the unequal structure upon which the relationship rests"). He completely misses the whole point of the book, so I can see why he'd be disappointed; it's not SUPPOSED to be angry or political or impart some kind of racial tolerance lesson. It's subtle, it assumes readers have some intelligence. It's told from a child's perspective. It's a coming of age YA novel. But I guess some people like being lectured, like those "very special episodes" of 80s/90s family sitcoms. Never been my bag.

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