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Robert Galvin

To Hail A ‘Mockingbird’: Between the lines of the ‘Great American’ vote

In the end, it was obvious.

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s seminal coming-of-age story about racial injustice and the willingness of one man to stand for principle against the weight of cultural oppression, received top honors Tuesday night at the conclusion of PBS’s summer competition to name “The Great American Read.”

There’s a message in there, somewhere.

To be sure, the series had a silly element from the start. No one seriously believed that “Fifty Shades of Grey” should be considered in the same class as “Beloved” and “The Great Gatsby” — or even fan-favorite commercial works such as the “Harry Potter” series or books by Stephen King or James Patterson.

And, as with any contest where people “vote” for their favorites, popularity reigns and is even encouraged (the “Outlander” series, which finished second in the final standings, was particularly egregious in this respect).

But still, “Great American Read” host Meredith Vieira said during Tuesday’s finale, “Mockingbird” was the leading vote-getter from the first day of the series in May and never relinquished the top spot during a poll that tallied more than 4 million votes.

And that’s where the question turns from what “Read” would be selected, to why the ultimate winner resonates.

You don’t have to be a cynic (although it helps) to suggest that the resonance of “Mockingbird” comes as much from the Oscar-winning film adaptation than it does from the book itself.

(Only those completely jaded would espouse the theory that a fair number of those who voted for the book in this poll have never read it.)

My theory is that a fair number of those who voted for “Mockingbird” in this poll have never read it.

Oh, they know the story. They know Atticus Finch looked (and, perhaps more tellingly, sounded) like Gregory Peck. They see themselves as Scout or Jem, or even a bit like Boo Radley.

They might even enjoy the romanticism of it being Lee’s only novel (the “Go Set A Watchman” travesty doesn’t count) and of her childhood friendship with Truman Capote.

It’s a safe, solid, predictable choice to be crowned America’s “most loved” novel.

Caveats aside, however, when “Mockingbird” works — on the page or on the screen — for its audience, it does something greater than entertain. Its simplicity stimulates the heart, the mind and the soul. Which, frankly, is astounding considering that … SPOILER ALERT … it comes to a just so damned depressing conclusion.

Atticus, despite his powers of persuasion, loses the case.

Tom Robinson, despite his innocence, is jailed … and then killed.

The ambiguity of the trial’s aftermath doesn’t leave the reader with the hope that the “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama, will have earned anything from what it has gone through.

Why “Mockingbird” endures, why despite the initial trepidation of its publishers it was an immediate national sensation, is that it is an extension of Abraham Lincoln’s post Civil War determination that Americans listen to the “better angels of our nature.”

We read the hate spewed in the book toward those of non-white races and those who would stand up for their rights and we want to believe that … under similar circumstances … we would choose to walk in Atticus’ shoes.

We picture that feeling of oppression as the rock of Sisyphus, and know somewhere in the parts of our being that remain uncorrupted by the negativity surrounding us that the rock is worth pushing against.

Of course, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a professional cynic if I didn’t flip the coin over.

We know we’re not Atticus Finch, and many among us would bow to the societal pressure and walk away from the fight. We might push that boulder for awhile, but the will to continue would dissipate as our muscles gave way.

Despite all the empowering moral strength that “Mockingbird” instills, however, there remains the sense that it tops a survey like “The Great American Read” because of our understanding that its uplift still seems out of reach — particularly in a time and place where those “better angels” of Lincoln are so often shouted down by the barrage of vitriol from the omnipresent social media wasteland.

Honoring “To Kill A Mockingbird” in this moment, therefore, is akin to using the proverbial tree falling in the forest as a litmus test.

Hearing it, or not, are equally American choices.

If you are earworming the Carly Simon-James Taylor duet, blame Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com.

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