Thinking about Scout

amywink May 7th, 2018

This weekend, I found myself talking about Harper Lee and Emily Dickinson, two singular writers and icons of literary difference both of whom our culture would like to make much more manageable and comfortably definable than either wanted to be. Saturday, as I sat with friends, I told a little story to the child who had climbed onto my lap about Harper Lee and her great book, To Kill a Mockingbird. When one friend brought up Lee’s second book, I explained I had not read that to my surprised audience (among whom I am notorious for reading). So I continued, saying that I was disturbed by what happened to Harper Lee and the push for the publication of her “second” book, which was clearly an early draft of her original masterpiece and one which she had not published without significant pressure from others who desperately wanted to make her into a different writer than she was (and cash in her reputation as well)–I may not have explained all of that because the 4 year old sitting with me might have found it all quite dull and I am pretty sure if she wants to know, she’ll ask me again some time. I know she was listening.

Sunday, I spent some time explaining how I came to be who I am now and how I discovered the route by which I would eventually come to know myself as writer and autobiography scholar. In the context of my narrative, I talked about how I had finally found the cache of women writers culture had hidden when I took the first Literature By Women class at Southwestern University (now famed in song and story) and was introduced to writers I had not known (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, etc, etc, etc.) and writers I had been looking for: Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte, whose novel Jane Eyre I had read when I was in 8th grade (by myself, not in school). At the moment of those revelations, I had only known Emily Dickinson as “the” woman poet who in my education had only been described in terms of her oddity: how she was weird, how she never married, how she only wore white, how everyone wondered what was “wrong” with her, how she may have had epilepsy, or migraines, or agoraphobia, or. . . .(and the other woman poet I knew of in high school, Sylvia Plath? Crazy.)

But in that class, and others I took at Southwestern, Dickinson was recognized not just for her oddity but also for her poetic genius. One of my professors, herself an oddity and poetic genius, explained to us in our writing class that if we had only seen a single poem of Dickinson’s (I think it was A Narrow Fellow in the Grass), we would still have to recognize her as the poet she was, even if she never wrote another thing. Of course, Dickinson’s own poetry, bound into chapbooks for her friends, or left stuffed in her desk to be found after her death, was simply for herself and her circle, which I found out much later was quite large and she kept up correspondence with at least 90 people. That is hardly a recluse. But once her family decided to publish, they ended up wrecking what had been her unique voice in an effort to make her poetry more like other poems of the day. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I heard what I continue to think and hold as the most succinct and apt description of Dickinson: “She just didn’t like stupid people.” Amen.

I have been thinking of both these writers and how our culture likes to box them up into a nice package, surrounded by speculative questions. Harper Lee “only wrote” the one book, how sad. “If only” she had written more. And yet, To Kill a Mockingbird is an amazing autobiographical novel. If that was the only thing I had written, I’d retire quite happy thinking “my work here is done.” If the book I wrote interrupted my quiet life and forced me to be more public than I ever was comfortable being, I’d retire from public life as well with a “No, thank you.” (Anne Tyler keeps to herself and does just fine. Mary Oliver too. We are not all able to be aggressively public as publishers want us to be, jumping through hoops on command). Perhaps this is what disturbs me most about Harper Lee, that we forced her to be more public, to be the center of constant speculative demands that she perform more for her audience, that somehow we are more important than she was to the production of literary art. We would have preferred she perform for us, instead of listening to her own still voice and choosing the life she wanted. But she gave us the amazing story of a little girl, suddenly coming into understanding of the world around her and remembering what her life had been like because of that moment. That’s plenty.

Dickinson chose the life she wanted and seemed quite happy at it–she wrote over 2000 poems. I have no demand for “if only” from her– but our culture continues to wonder about her, particularly speculating on her relations with others: Was she a virgin? Did she have an affair? Was she a lesbian? Was she a pawn in hiding the affairs of others?

Seriously. What is wrong with us? Did we never graduate from junior high school? The woman wrote 2000 poems!!

What is wrong with us, of course, is sexism. That we view writers who are women through a different kind of lens than we do writers who are men. It’s the lens that Joanna Russ explained in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, first published in 1983, the year I graduated from high school, and a book that continues to be relevant to this day.

Sadly.

But I am glad the book is still out there and is now being discussed in my broader circles than the graduate class on Feminist Theory in which I read the book in 1988, though I do have to keep reminding myself that this is a good thing.

I have been thinking of these two scouts, Lee and Dickinson, lately because I have lived unconventionally as well and recently someone tried to put me into a nice conventional box. It is an odd feeling, that unintentional boxing, and one I had not run up against in a long time (not since my mother finally gave up trying to do it after I turned 40). I bucked against it instantly because I am allowed to live my life to the contrary. I cannot be put in a box. I will keep living and working to make sure no one else has to live in the box that someone else decided was the better fit. And I will keep telling the stories of my resistance.

We can all tell how we lived our own lives differently; how we enjoyed our time on this earth; how we came to know ourselves in new ways so that everyone who listens can think of their lives and how to live despite what the world may tell them is the “right” way to do so. Our lives are far more complicated and interesting than convention allows them to be. Sharing the stories of how we dared greatly ourselves, especially if our own daring is not what others might understand, makes daring greatly even more possible.

The story I want to tell the four-year-old about Harper Lee is not the story of Lee’s “failure” to write more, or the crappy first draft her public demanded to see and claimed was her second novel. I want this child, this scout who climbed into my lap, to hear the beautiful story of someone who wrote an amazing and wonderful book about a little girl named coming to understand her world and that one beautiful book keeps making a difference for those who read it, and that one book was enough to set in motion an enormous change in a world deeply reluctant to shift. I want to let her know that Harper Lee was enough and what she did, in her own quiet and unconventional way, was plenty.

One Response to “Thinking about Scout”

  1. Molly Whiteon 07 May 2018 at 9:01 am

    So awesome and thought provoking, Dr. Amy! ❤️

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