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Books That Shaped America-- Part 3
A man renting a typewriter for a few hours to quickly pick out a story or novel to help feed his family. A young woman, crippled by lupus and living on a farm in Georgia with her mother and her flock of peafowl. A roaming journalist who's life was marked by loneliness and depression. They may not seem very important, and if they lived next door to you, they very well might be the oddities of the neighborhood. But in a way they have more influence than the politicians and money-makers of the last century because they have helped to change and shape the way the past several generations have learned to think and reason.
There's an old adage that says that the pen is mightier than the sword. And with the power of a well-written story to draw us in and make us sympathize with whoever the author chooses, it's not surprising that it's the men and women of letters who are some of the most "forward" thinkers of their days. They have had a platform to present their ideologies and thoughts to the masses. I would never suggest that one book is solely responsible for changing entire thought patterns and mindsets. But I do think that literature affects individuals, both positively and negatively, and in doing so influences culture as a whole.
Another saying states that you are what you read, and to a large extent, it's true. But you can learn to read objectively and critically, always trying to understand what an author is saying between the lines, and how what they say reflects what they think and believe. And even more importantly, you can learn how to recognize the way what you read influences and shapes you and your ideals.
To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee's only novel has become one of the most famous of modern literature. It was published in 1960, a time that saw an America in transition from old traditions and ways to new. Racial segregation was coming to the forefront of public consciousness with the Rosa Parks bus incident in 1955 and Martin Luther King Jr.'s rise to prominence.
Mockingbird is quite a simple story of a simple time, told from the perspective of six year old Scout. She lives in a small Alabama town with her father Atticus, a lawyer, and her brother Jem, as well as an old black housekeeper, Calpurnia. Through the progression of a few years, we see both children mature through the seasons, school years spent fighting with Walter and summers spent fighting with Dill, the little boy who came every year for vacation. And then one summer, the fights at school get even worse as everyone starts mocking Atticus and his new case. He's defending a black man accused of raping a white woman, and he'll be willing to sacrifice his practice and his reputation to do what he knows is right. Though he doesn't win the case, and he knew from the start that he wouldn't, respect for Atticus grows among the people in the town who really matter, and Scout learns a tremendous lesson about what really matters in life. It's not a person's skin color, or the way they talk that matters, but the way they act and treat others.
This carries over to her relationship with Boo Radley, a reclusive and odd neighbor that Scout has never actually met. He's the subject of a great deal of gossip, none of it kind, and as a result Jem and Scout are frightened of him. However, they eventually have to realize that they have been unjust in their assessment of him and make a friend in the process.
Tolerance is a large part of the story-- accepting the differences of others, just as they must accept you. And this is, in it's essence, a sound and wonderful idea, consistent with loving others and treating others well who have been created in the image of God. But tolerance taken to far isn't tolerance, it's apathy. Look at modern society's view of tolerance-- it doesn't mean truly loving someone enough to show them their sin, or accept the foibles of their personality. It has been redefined to look over their sins, some of them heinous and atrocious. We can accept the murder of unborn children in the name of scientific relabeling, or redefined the sacred institution of marriage to make people feel good about their sins. There is a vast amount of difference between loving someone who looks different and loving someone who opposes and hates Biblical morality, and Scout never draws that line for us.
Short Stories of William Faulkner
There's something fascinating about a collection of short stories. It as if you see an author's personality through many different facets and shades-- differences in characters and plot line demonstrate a writer's versatility, intensity, or agility. Some prefer it as almost their only form of writing, while other authors ignore it all together.
William Faulkner was prolifically somewhere in between, with nineteen novels, 125 short stories, as well as an assortment of screenplays, plays, and poetry. His characters were extremely diverse, with stories of the old Indian tribes in the South, or tales of old women who were once belles. I'm not going to choose to any one particular story to analyze here, because you get a much better overview of his style and worldview.
Where Hemingway was a master of brevity, Faulkner was an incredible long sentence creator, using cumulative syntax in a way that few would dare attempt and even fewer could use successfully. And while some of the stories end up feeling pointless and leave you wondering what he really had to say, each one carries the mark of a master. Take for instance A Rose for Emily, the rather weird tale of an old reclusive woman, once the belle of the town and a member of it's founding family. As she grows older, the more she draws into herself and becomes the center of all the gossip in the town who haven't seen her or the inside of her house for decades. Finally, at her death, her neighbors pour in to gawk at what was Miss Emily's hiding place from the world, and discover her secret. In this secret lies something so grotesque and repulsive, that one is left to wonder why Miss Emily could live with it. Her life was an exercise in selfish futility.
Or the protagonist of Uncle Willy, an old man who is a drug addict and a shiftless, lazy bum. But he's described by the narrator (one of the boys who lives in the same small town) as being "the best man he ever knew", because Uncle Willy did exactly as he liked, and didn't care what anyone thought. Is that really a worthy definition of a good man? Faulkner never really says-- he leaves us to deduce, as all good writers do. But if that was his idea of a good archetype of manliness, the standard could stand to be raised.
There's an underlying current in all of Faulkner's stories that leaves one with questions-- what is our purpose in life? Faulkner seemed somewhat agnostic in his religious beliefs without writing much on the subject, but if left to deduce from his stories it's safe to say that he didn't see anything worthwhile in this world except one's own pleasure, and that's even rather unsatisfying. If that's all the more value one puts on the life God has created and given you, it's no wonder that there's nothing but hopelessness to be found in it. William Faulkner could have found a much happier ending for all of his characters if their creator had acknowledged his own Creator.