Action in the Mid-Atlantic
March 16, 2007
As if it weren't challenging enough to remember which Big Read city I'm in from one whistle stop to the next, I'm about to write up my impressions of Maryland from here in Galesburg, Illinois. So if I start rhapsodizing about the lonesome whippoorwills and waving wheatfields of Baltimore, you'll know I've finally gone over the double yellow line for good.
Baltimore was a blast, but I'll skip lightly over the funky charms of its Hampden neighborhood -- where most of this tightly focused Big Read is based -- the better to zoom in on David's Restaurant and the good-naturedly contentious book talk I found there. Things began innocently enough, with principal sponsor Maryland Public Television's Allen Hicks welcoming a busload of lunchers from Pat Chalfant's local senior center. I fought back a smile at the center's name, Action in Maturity, but shortly I came to recognize it as simple truth in advertising.
The Deputy Mayor got things rolling with a proclamation declaring this Big Read Day in Baltimore, and soon we all tucked into a pyramid of sandwiches. Local eighth-grader Robert K. Berger got up and delivered a heartening essay about how several of his classmates reading To Kill a Mockingbird went from "When is there going to be some action?" to pronouncing it their "new favorite book." After that, on a break from promoting his book about incompetent medicine's role in the death of President Garfield, writer Bill Schroeder took a more historical look at the writing and reception of Mockingbird.
And then, the fireworks. Professor Siobhan Wright, named for the great Irish stage and screen actress Siobhan McKenna and therefore perhaps fated to teach film, showed a couple of scenes from the movie of Mockingbird and proceeded to fault it -- and, to a lesser extent, the book -- for borderline racist attitudes toward its black characters.
Let me just say that if you ever really want to get a rise out of an audience, calling a book and movie they've loved for 45 years racist is an excellent way to start. One by one the seniors, black and white alike, took this unassuming junior professor to task for "superimposing" contemporary hindsight on mid-20th-century Southern liberalism.
Diplomatically Washingtonian to a fault, I sought consensus. I tried to placate the combatants by allowing as how the character of Calpurnia, the black domestic who's a virtual mother to the Finch children, didn't offend me, but that having the black gallery stand as Atticus left the courtroom was maybe a little much. Paternalism? "It was a sign of respect!", one woman shot back, and, chastened, I sank back into watchful federal bemusement.
Later, admiring vintage Mockingbird-era chiffarobes in a local thrift shop, I marveled at the capacity of a half-century-old story to get forty senior citizens and an associate professor of English and film -- each previously secure in their ideas of it as a classic and a chestnut, respectively -- talking to each other. And all the while, there sat Robert K. Berger next to his proud teacher, Ms. Gallagher, listening to a bunch of adults argue over a book because it's something important, and raising his hand to get in on the action...