Archive for the ‘Arts & Letters’ Category
This review originally appeared in Academic Questions (2014).
A few years ago, when I was teaching composition courses at Auburn University, I had a freshman from Harlem in my class. He had traveled from New York to Alabama to accept a scholarship and become the first person in his family to attend college. He was kind and thoughtful, and I liked him very much, but he was woefully unprepared for higher education; he had trouble comprehending more than a few paragraphs and could not write basic sentences. The university, however, was proud of this recruit, who contributed both geographic and racial diversity to the otherwise (relatively) non-diverse student body.
Encouraged by his tenacity, I met with this student regularly to teach him sentence structure and to help him turn his spoken words into written sentences. Although he improved by degrees over the course of the semester, he was never able to write a complete coherent paragraph.
During the last weeks of class, I informed him that he needed to earn at least a C+ on his final paper to avoid repeating the course. He was conspicuously absent from class whenever preliminary drafts were due, and he never responded to my prodding emails. Shortly before the due date, he materialized in my office and presented a piece of paper that contained several sentences. He asked me questions and attempted to record my responses on his paper. I reminded him that although I was happy to offer guidance, he needed to submit original work. He nodded and left my office. When, at last, he submitted his final paper, it consisted of roughly four intelligible paragraphs that regrettably had nothing to do with the assignment. I inserted these paragraphs into a Google search and discovered that they were lifted, verbatim, from a Wikipedia article unrelated to the assignment. I failed the student but showed him mercy—and spared the university embarrassment—by not reporting him to the administration for disciplinary action.
To this day I wonder if there was something I could have done differently to prevent this student from plagiarizing, or whether his cheating was the inevitable consequence of being unprepared for university study. Many teachers have similar stories.
Academic dishonesty, a topic now admirably undertaken by James M. Lang, has received more scholarly treatment than I was aware of before reading Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Like many of us, Lang grew interested in the subject because of his experiences with students who cheated in his classes. The more research he did on academic dishonesty, the more frustrated he became with “the same basic prescriptions” that were either quixotic or impracticable for one faculty member to undertake alone. One day, Lang realized that if he “looked through the lens of cognitive theory and tried to understand cheating as an inappropriate response to a learning environment that wasn’t working for the student,” he could “empower individual faculty members to respond more effectively to academic dishonesty by modifying the learning environments they constructed.”
Lang’s goal is not to score points or court confrontation, but simply to help teachers and administrators to reduce cheating by restructuring the content and configuration of their courses and classrooms.
Lang divides Cheating Lessons into three parts. The first is a synthesis of the existing scholarly literature on academic dishonesty that concludes with four case studies, about which little needs to be said here. The second part consists of practical guidance to teachers who wish to structure their classrooms to minimize cheating and to cultivate the exchange of ideas. And the third, which is an extension of the second, considers speculations about potential changes to curricula and pedagogy to promote academic integrity not just in the classroom, but across campus.
Most original are parts two and three, which are premised on the structuralist assumption that systems shape and inform the production of knowledge. The treatment of academic dishonesty as a symptom of deterministic models and paradigms makes this book unique. If the models and paradigms can be changed, Lang’s argument runs, then academic dishonesty might decline: the shift needs to be away from the “dispositional factors that influence cheating—such as the student’s gender, or membership in a fraternity or sorority, and so on”—toward “contextual factors,” the most significant of which is “the classroom environment in which students engage in a cheating behavior” (emphases in original). What’s exciting about the structuralist paradigm—if it’s accurate—is that teachers and administrators have the power and agency to facilitate constructive change.
But what if the structuralist paradigm isn’t correct? What if dispositional factors are more determinative than contextual factors in generating academic dishonesty? Lang’s argument depends upon a profound assumption that he expects his readers to share. It’s most likely that dispositional and contextual factors are interactive, not mutually exclusive: consider the student who is not as intelligent as his peers and who resorts to cheating because of his insecurity and the pressure on him to succeed. Lang is onto something, though: students are less likely to learn in an environment that compels them “to complete a difficult task with the promise of an extrinsic reward or the threat of punishment” than they are in an environment that inspires them “with appeals to the intrinsic joy or beauty or utility of the task itself” (emphasis in original). In other words, “in an environment characterized by extrinsic motivation, the learners or competitors care about what happens after the performance rather than relishing or enjoying the performance itself” (emphasis in original).
How does Lang propose that teachers and administrators structure their courses and curricula to foster what he calls “intrinsic motivation” (as against “extrinsic rewards”) among students? For starters, he urges professors to help students learn for mastery and not for grades, to lower the stakes per assignment by multiplying the options for students to earn points or credit, and to instill self-efficacy by challenging students and by affording them increased opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. In the abstract, these suggestions seem obvious and unhelpful, so Lang backs them up with interviews with accomplished teachers as well as anecdotes about successful classroom experiments: the improvising by Andy Kaufman as he taught Russian literature to prison inmates, for instance, or the unique grading system implemented by John Boyer at Virginia Tech. All the tactics and approaches discussed and promoted by Lang can be traced back to the premise that “the best means we have to reduce cheating is to increase motivation and learning.”
Teachers and administrators are forever trying to motivate their students to learn. It’s easier to conceive of this goal, however, than to achieve it. Teachers everywhere seek to inspire their students to love and pursue knowledge, and despite a plethora of opinions about how best to do so, no general consensus has arisen to establish a definitive course of action for all students and disciplines. Many teachers chose their profession and discipline because they relished their own education and wanted to pass on their knowledge and love of learning to others. Lang’s insistence that teachers inspire a passion for learning is hardly novel; rather, it is the touchstone and stands in contradistinction to the utilitarian, standardized, test-centered, and results-oriented educational strategies that politicians, bureaucrats, and policy wonks now sponsor and defend. In this respect, Cheating Lessons is a refreshing alternative; it’s written by an educator for educators and not, thank goodness, for semiliterate politicians and their sycophantic advisers.
One thing this book is not: a template or checklist that you can follow to construct your own productive learning environment for students. Each learning environment is contextual; one model will not suit every setting and purpose. Because Lang cannot and does not provide step-by-step how-to instructions, Cheating Lessons borders on the self-help genre and is more inspirational and aspirational than it is informational. And Lang’s meandering style—for example, his digressions about Robert Burns and coaching youth sports teams—are disarming enough not only to charm but also to contribute to the impression that Cheating Lessons is “light” reading.
Lang can overdo the playfulness and make exaggerated claims. Early on he quotes a Harvard administrator complaining in 1928 about the problem of cheating among students, an example that’s meant to refute the assumption that “we are in the midst of a cheating epidemic, and that the problem is much worse now than it was in the idyllic past.” Lang adds that he hopes to convince us that “cheating and higher education in America have enjoyed a long and robust history together.” But it’s not as if 1928 is ancient history. Data about academic dishonesty since that time will not convince most readers that there were as many cheating students in the one-room schoolhouses of the nineteenth century, when fewer people had access to formal education, as there are today. Perhaps anticipating such criticism, Lang invites us to “hop in our time machine and leap across centuries” to consider the cheating cultures of the ancient Greeks and of Imperial China “over the course of [a] fourteen-hundred-year history.” But surely the substantial data we have gathered on the twentieth- and twenty-first-century academy cannot be compared to the limited and circumstantial data garnered about these early cultures; surely “illicit communication” by “cell phones” is not comparable to the use of cheat sheets in nineteenth-century China. It seems preposterous to suggest that academic dishonesty in contemporary America exists to the same extent it did centuries ago on different continents and among different peoples with different principles and priorities.
Nevertheless, even readers skeptical of Lang’s structuralist premise and apparent optimism will find much in Cheating Lessons to contemplate and to amuse. Unfortunately, however, even after having read the book I’m still not sure what I could have done differently to prevent my student from cheating.
This piece first appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity derives from the English notion that “the king can do no wrong” and hence cannot be sued without his consent. The purpose of this doctrine was, in England, from at least the Middle Ages until eighteenth century, to bar certain lawsuits against the monarch and his or her ministers and servants. With the rise of the English Parliament after the death of Elizabeth I, government officers and politicians sought to gain the power of immunity that the monarch and his or her agents had enjoyed.
In practice, however, English subjects were not totally deprived of remedies against the monarch or the government. The doctrine of sovereign immunity was not an absolute prohibition on actions against the crown or against other branches of government; subjects could avail themselves of petitions of right or writs of mandamus, for instance, and monarchs fearful of losing the support of the people would often consent to be sued.
It was not until the monarchy had been demonstrably weakened that the doctrine of sovereign immunity began to be espoused with added urgency and enforced with added zeal. In the late eighteenth century, Sir William Blackstone intoned in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that the king “is not only incapable of doing wrong, but ever of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly of weakness.” These lines convert sovereign immunity into sovereign infallibility, a more ominous yet more dubious pretension.
Once the monarchy had been abolished altogether, the idea that the sovereign had to consent to be sued no longer held credence. As Louis L. Jaffe explains, “Because the King had been abolished, the courts concluded that where in the past the procedure had been by petition of right there was now no one authorized to consent to suit! If there was any successor to the King qua sovereign it was the legislature,” which, having many members subject to differing constituencies, was not as accountable as the monarch had been to the parties seeking to sue.
The principle of sovereign immunity carried over from England to the United States, where most states have enshrined in their constitution an absolute bar against suing the State or its agencies and officers whose actions fall within the scope of official duties. The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution likewise states that “the Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” This provision, which applies only in federal courts and which does not on its face prohibit a lawsuit against a state by a citizen of that same state, was adopted in response to the ruling in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), a case that held sovereign immunity to have been abrogated and that vested in federal courts the authority to preside over disputes between private citizens and state governments.
Notwithstanding the complex issues of federalism at play in the Chisholm decision and in the Eleventh Amendment, the fact remains that the doctrine of sovereign immunity has been applied with widening scope and frequency since the states ratified the Eleventh Amendment in 1795. The U.S. Supreme Court has contributed to the doctrine’s flourishing. “The Supreme Court’s acceptance of sovereign immunity as constitutional principle,” explains one commentator, “depends on its determination of the intent of the Framers, which ignores a great deal of historical evidence from the time of the founding and relies primarily on a discredited account of the Eleventh Amendment first articulated in the 1890 case of Hans v. Louisiana.”
State and federal courts have now built an impregnable wall of immunity around certain state and federal officers. The sovereign immunity that is enshrined in state constitutions is, in theory, not absolute because it is conferred only to certain agents and officers and does not prohibit lawsuits to enjoin such agents and officers from performing unconstitutional or other bad acts. In practice, however, the growth of qualified immunities, which is in keeping with the growth of government itself, has caused more and more agents of the State to cloak themselves in immunity.
Bus drivers, teachers, coroners, constables, high school coaches, doctors and nurses at university hospitals, security guards, justices of the peace, government attorneys, legislators, mayors, boards of education and health, university administrators, Indian reservations, prison guards and wardens, police officers and detectives, janitors in government facilities, licensing boards, tax assessors, librarians, railroad workers, government engineers, judges and justices, school superintendents and principals, towing companies, health inspectors, probation officers, game wardens, museum docents and curators, social workers, court clerks, dog catchers, contractors for public utilities, public notaries, tollbooth attendants, airport traffic controllers, park rangers, ambulance drivers, firefighters, telephone operators, bus drivers, subway workers, city council members, state auditors, agricultural commissioners—all have sought to establish for themselves, with mixed degrees of success, the legal invincibility that comes with being an arm of the state.
Yet the idea that “the king can do no wrong” makes no sense in a governmental system that has lacked a king from its inception. Its application as law has left ordinary citizens with limited recourse against governments (or against people claiming governmental status for the purpose of immunity) that have committed actual wrongs. When the government, even at the state level, consists of vast bureaucracies of the kind that exist today, the doctrine of sovereign immunity becomes absurd. If it is true that in nine states and in the District of Columbia the government employs more than 20% of all workers, imagine how many people are eligible to claim immunity from liability for their tortious conduct and bad acts committed on the job.
Local news reports are full of stories about government employees invoking the doctrine of sovereign immunity; few such stories find their way into the national media. Judge Wade McCree of Michigan, for instance, recently carried out an affair with a woman who was a party in a child-support case on his docket, having sexual intercourse with her in his chambers and “sexting” her even on the day she appeared as a witness in his courtroom. Although McCree was removed from office, he was immune from civil liability. An airport in Charleston, West Virginia, is invoking the doctrine of immunity to shield itself from claims that it contributed to a chemical spill that contaminated the water supply. Officer Darren Wilson may be entitled to immunity for the shooting of Michael Brown, depending on how the facts unfold in that investigation.
The U.S. Supreme Court once famously declared that the doctrine of sovereign immunity “has never been discussed or the reasons for it given, but it has always been treated as an established doctrine.” A disestablishment is now in order. The size and scope of government is simply too massive on the state and national level to sustain this doctrine that undermines the widely held belief of the American Founders that State power must be limited and that the State itself must be held accountable for its wrongs. Friedrich Hayek pointed out that the ideal of the rule of law requires the government to “act under the same law” and to “be limited in the same manner as any private person.” The doctrine of sovereign immunity stands in contradistinction to this ideal: it places an increasing number of individuals above the law.
If the law is to be meaningful and just, it must apply equally to all persons and must bind those who enforce it. It must not recognize and condone privileges bestowed upon those with government connections or incentivize bad behavior within government ranks. Sovereign immunity is a problem that will only worsen if it is not addressed soon. The king can do wrong, and so can modern governments. It’s time for these governments to be held accountable for the harms they produce and to stop hiding behind a fiction that was long ago discredited.
See generally, Louis L. Jaffe, “Suits Against Governments and Officers: Sovereign Immunity,” 77 Harvard Law Review 1 (1963).
Jaffe at 2.
Susan Randall, “Sovereign Immunity and the Uses of History,” 81 Nebraska L. Rev. 1, 4 (2002-03).
U.S. v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, 207 (1882).
F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Vol. 17 of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, ed. Ronald Hamowy(Routlege, 2011), p. 318.
This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative.
Webster’s defines “intelligent” as “endowed with intelligence or intellect; possessed of, or exhibiting, a high or fitting degree of intelligence or understanding.” This modern understanding of “intelligence” as an innate disposition or propensity differs from earlier understandings of the word as meaning “versed” or “skilled.” Milton, for instance, in Paradise Lost, calls the eagle and the stork “intelligent of seasons,” by which he meant that these birds, because of their experience, were cognizant of the seasons.
The older meaning of “intelligent” has less to do with native endowment than it does with gradual understanding. The older meaning, in other words, is that intelligence is acquired by effort and exposure rather than fixed by biological inheritance or natural capacity: one may become intelligent and is not just born that way; intelligence is a cultivated faculty, not an intrinsic feature.
Because of the altered signification of “intelligent,” we use today different words to describe the older meaning: erudite, knowledgeable, informed, traveled, educated. These words seem to us more palatable than their once-favored predecessors: civilized, polished, cultured, genteel, refined. I myself prefer words like “lettered” or “versed” that imply a knowledge of important books and the humanities generally.
The most apt term in this regard is also the most butchered in the current lexicon: “literate.” Contrary to what appears to be the prevailing assumption, “literate” does not simply refer to an ability to read. According to Webster’s, “literate” means “instructed in letters, educated; pertaining to, or learned in, literature.”
Not just to read, but to read well and widely—that is how you become “literate.” Accepting this traditional meaning, I question how many lawyers are or can become literate.
In the 1980s, Ithiel de Sola Pool, a professor of communications and media, determined that the average American adult reads approximately 240 words per minute. At that rate, it would take a person around 2,268.36 minutes (or 37 hours, 48 minutes, and 21.6 seconds) to read War and Peace, which comes in at 544,406 words. If that sounds encouraging—ever wanted to read War and Peace in a day-and-a-half?—consider these offsetting variables: reading at one sitting slows over time; attention span and memory recall are limited; the mind can be exercised only so much before it requires rest; people cannot constantly read for 2,268.36 minutes without going to the restroom or eating or daydreaming, among other things; a healthy lifestyle entails seven to nine hours of sleep per day; large portions of the day are spent carrying out quotidian operations, including showering, cooking, brushing teeth, commuting to and from work, getting dressed and undressed, answering phone calls, reading emails, cleaning, filling out paperwork, paying bills, and so on. Pool, moreover, was not using a text like War and Peace to gather his data, and his subjects were not writing in the margins of their books, taking notes on their laptops, or pausing to engage others in critical conversations about some narrative.
The National Association for Legal Career Professionals has estimated that lawyers at large firms bill on average 1,859 hours per year and work 2,208 hours per year. These numbers are more troubling in view of the fact that large law firms require their attorneys to attend functions with clients and potential clients, time that is neither billable nor considered “working hours.”
If there are around 8,760 hours in a year, and if a healthy person spends about 2,920 of those sleeping, there remain only around 5,840 hours per year for everything else. If “everything else” consisted of nothing—nothing at all—except reading War and Peace, then a lawyer at a large law firm could read that book about 154 times a year. But of course this is not possible, because no person can function as a machine functions. Once the offsetting variables are accounted for—and I have listed only a few that immediately spring to mind, and these for people with no families—it becomes apparent that it is nearly impossible for a lawyer to read more than about four lengthy or difficult books each month, and only the most diligent and disciplined can accomplish that.
Numbers can lead us astray, so let us consider some anecdotal evidence—my own testimony—which suggests that most lawyers are illiterate, or perhaps that lawyers have to try really hard to become literate or to avoid losing their literacy.
I am a lawyer, one who considers himself literate but increasingly in danger of becoming illiterate the longer I remain in my chosen profession. My hope is that literacy stays with you, that if you “frontload,” as it were, you can build a wide enough base to allow for slack in later years.
In 2013, I made an effort to overcome the time restrictions of my job to read through several canonical texts of Western Civilization. For the most part I undertook a book a week, although, because of scheduling constraints, I read what I took to be the most important or most famous sections of the lengthier books and volumes such as Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, a work that would require years of study to fully appreciate. I found myself, on many Thursday evenings, reading so rapidly to finish the text at hand that I could not enjoy myself or absorb the nuances and complexities established by the author.
Reading only one book a week when you are intelligent enough to read more is shameful and disgraceful, the sacrifice of a gift. During graduate school, I could read five or six books a week and can recall more than one week when I read a book a day. But each day I spend working as a lawyer, I am less able to digest the books I consume and to consume the books necessary for intellectual nourishment.
Economists use the term “opportunity cost” to refer to a choice to forego options or to pursue the benefits of one course of action rather than another. The cost of becoming a lawyer is giving up literacy or making its attainment more difficult; the gain, in theory, is a higher salary and financial stability. Whether the gain neutralizes the loss depends on one’s preferences. I myself would not trade for a million dollars the opportunity to read Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Aristotle or Santayana.
To achieve the admiration enjoyed by lawyers, other professionals must do their jobs several times better. Happily, this is not a high bar. That is why people prefer the company of doctors. It is not that lawyers are incompetent or unskilled; it is that they do not put their faculties to good use. All people think, but it is only by degree and by the object of their thought that the literate are distinguished from the illiterate. To put their minds to humane use would improve lawyers’ reputations considerably and call into question that axiom popularized by one of Dickens’s characters: “If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”
The way I see it, you can spend all your life billing clients and pushing paper under great stress, by investing your talents and resources in prospects that yield no intellectual returns, or you can spend your life establishing high standards of reason, understanding, and creativity by studying the most important and influential works that humans have produced through the ages. You can spend all your time transacting business, prosecuting and defending lawsuits, and preparing briefs and memoranda, or you can cultivate discernment and understanding. The options are not mutually exclusive: I have overstated to draw a sharp contrast, but the point remains.
Do not misunderstand me: working hard and earning profits are not only good and healthy activities but personally fulfilling. Yet they must be supplemented with humane contemplation and the private study of important ideas. Industry and innovation are requisite to a high quality of life, a robust economy, and human flourishing—and they make possible the time and leisure that enable some people to create great art and literature. Not everyone can be literate, and that is a good thing.
It is just that many lawyers never learn to live well and wisely, to place their seemingly urgent matters into perspective, or to appreciate, as Aristotle did, the virtues of moderation. This failure is directly related to lawyers’ neglect of history and philosophy and to their suppression of the moral imagination that works of good literature can awaken. This failure, as well, puts lawyers at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to spiritual, moral, and intellectual pursuits. As Mark Twain quipped, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”
Lawyers are illiterate, most of them anyway. Trust them to handle your real estate closings or to manage your negligence claims, to finalize your divorce or to dash off angry letters to your competitors, but do not trust them to instruct you on plain living and high thinking. There are exceptions—Gerald Russello and Daniel Kornstein are two—but generally lawyers are not to be consulted on matters of importance to the soul. For those, we have good books, and with luck, the people who write and read them.
Napoleon in America is a “what-if” historical novel that combines a variety of styles – epistolary, newspaper article, and regular novelistic narrative – to create a work that reads like a very well-written narrative of history. Given that the author is necessarily working with an entirely fictional world – one in which Napoleon escapes from St. Helena to the United States – the fact that she can create such an effect is quite remarkable. The reader is made to feel as if he or she is reading about actual historical events. Of particular note is the fact that Selin creates the impression that we are reading a Great Men History book, which makes it rather distinctive. As such, it is going against the direction in which historical studies have, themselves, gone.
Much contemporary history deals with everyday life, local histories, etc. But given that the protagonist of this novel, Napoleon, is the kind of person who is distinctly bored with everyday life – is too big for everyday life – we should not be surprised to find a story dominated by the overwhelming presence of the personality of Napoleon. It is perhaps for this very reason that the novel becomes involved in the great movements of Napoleon rather than the intimate details of his life. These aspects are touched on here and there, of course, but in the end, we remember Napoleon the Conquerer, not Napoleon the almost-died-when-he-got-to-America. Napoleon quickly recovers to dominate the novel with his personality. But this personality is not one changed by circumstances. He is the Napoleon we all love and loathe. He cannot settle down. He has to conquer.
Thus, with Selin’s novel, we have a complete inversion. The novel has, historically, dealt with everyday people in their everyday lives. The actions of most novelistic characters do not have a major impact on historical events. If we look at the way histories are written over the same time period of the rise of the European novel (which includes American and Canadian literature and, stylistically, much literature written in the rest of the world during the 20th century), we primarily see the complete opposite: an interest in major figures and their major effects on history dominate most historical narratives over this same time period. However, we see a shift within history toward the same kinds of concerns we see in novels: everyday peoples, the histories of institutions, local histories, etc. Thus, we should not be surprised to find novels picking up the kinds of narratives we once found in histories.
Along with the Big Men of the time, Selin deals with the Big Ideas of the time; of course, the Big Men are often the Big Men precisely because they discuss and try to enact the Big Ideas of their time. Liberalism and dictatorship and whether Napoleon is really a liberal or little better than the kings he likes to depose are discussed – as no doubt they were, in fact, discussed historically. We see some of the conflicts within French Liberalism – and some of the contradictions. Was it a mere coincidence that French Liberalism led to the Terror and to the Empire under Napoleon? Or was it simply bad luck? Pro- and anti-Napoleon liberals are unified in their opposition to the Bourbons, but the question is raised as to whether replacing one monarch with another is really an improvement. Yet, there seems a willingness, even among those who oppose Napoleon, to support revolution against the Bourbons, even if it results in another Napoleon (literally or figuratively). Along these lines, Selin does a magnificent job of showing how blinding the opposition to the Bourbons is in the decision by the French government to invade Spain. The King in fact opposes the invasion, but ends up being talked into it; the liberals believe the invasion is a Bourbon plot and evidence of his being a cruel dictator. The reality is more humdrum than the conspiracy theory the liberals are desperate to believe.
Overall, Selin’s book goes beyond what we would expect to find in a historical novel whose main character is a major historical figure. A traditional historical novel would have the characters doing all the major, public actions the history books tell us happened. Selin has to do something quite different. She has to first know what did in fact happen during the historical period in question; she then has to understand Napoleon well enough to understand what he might do in circumstances other than those in which he did, in fact, find himself; and then she has to create a realistic alternative to what did in fact happen, understanding the butterfly effects of a Napoleon in America. It is a garden of forking paths, and one can go in any number of directions. To this end, Selin is certainly effective in her choice of direction. The great uncertainty created by Napoleon’s presence in America is well demonstrated. The U.S. government does not seem to know what to do with him. We are, after all, talking about a young country still learning where it fits in the world. It has the benefit of being separated from Europe – where all the action lies – by a large ocean. But the action has come to America’s shores when Napoleon escapes St. Helena. The uncertainty that leaves Napoleon free to raise an army and wander into Texas is well within the realm of possibilities. As is the naïve belief by some – such as James Bowie – that Napoleon can be “handled.”
The majority of the novel is dominated by the spirit of uncertainty and worry. All the action comes in at the end of the novel, when Napoleon finally does invade Texas. And even then, we are left with a great deal of uncertainty. Napoleon has won a battle and established himself in San Antonio; however, we are left with the question of what will happen next. Napoleon in America has the feeling of the first novel in a sequel. It would not surprise me if Napoleon in Texas were to follow. There is a great deal more to this story that could be explored. Will Napoleon be able to create a long-term presence in Texas? What will be the response of Mexico? What will be the response of the American government? What will be the response of the American settlers? Will the people of Kentucky and Tennessee volunteer to fight for Texas independence under Napoleon as they did for its independence under Austin? Is Napoleon just preparing the way for the Americans to take over, making it a bit easier than it was historically? Or is he perhaps making it a bit harder, since a Mexican government may take Napoleon as a much more serious threat to the government of Mexico than those who only wanted an independent Texas?
For those who enjoy the What-If History genre, these are fun questions to consider. I find it hard to imagine that anyone who reads Napoleon in America – which should include most of those who enjoy historical fiction – would fail to want these questions answered in a sequel.
Troy Camplin holds a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas. He has taught English in middle school, high school, and college, and is currently taking care of his children at home. He is the author of Diaphysics, an interdisciplinary work on systems philosophy; other projects include the application of F.A. Hayek’s spontaneous order theory to ethics, the arts, and literature. His play “Almost Ithacad” won the PIA Award from the Cyberfest at Dallas Hub Theater.
Sarah Elizabeth Farish is a graduate of the University of Illinois where she majored in English and Secondary Education. She is starting her first year teaching at Wheaton Academy in Wheaton, Illinois, this fall. She also coaches cross-country. While a northerner by residence she considers herself a southerner at heart, and loves Southern culture and literature very much.
The words “Deep South” stir a passion in our souls that they might not stir up in other folks. Hearing those syllables – pronounced more like “Deeep Sow-uth” in our family – causes several images to scroll through our minds: images of cotton plantations, Spanish moss, white-columned houses, small towns, Coca-Cola plants, Auburn University, and more.
For some reason hearing those words and seeing those images makes me think in black and white, as if the Deep South was a place frozen in time where things haven’t changed and Scout Finch is still strolling around the neighborhood looking for Jem and Dill.
And for many of us, it is that place.
It’s hard to say when and where my family begins but this story is going to be the story of my grandfather, Julius “Jay” Porter Farish III.
On November 15, 1929, the small town of Atmore, Alabama, needed something to hope in. The Great Depression had just started sinking its deep claws into America’s economy and morale.
Alabama has long been heralded as a state with many troubles, and this is true, but it was especially true during the Depression. Racism was rampant, pockets were empty, and folks were set in their ways, sometimes to a fault. Southerners were in church on Sundays, praying for an end to the Depression, and then working hard all week to bring money home to their families.
The mothers were teachers or stayed and worked at home. Black maids helped the white mothers and cooked and cleaned and then returned to the black neighborhoods to do the same for their own families.
My family, the Farishes, moved to Monroeville, Alabama, during the Depression and brought with them a sensible and strong work ethic. They immediately became involved in the town. This small, unsuspecting town would produce a few famous Americans who would alter American history. I’ll talk about them later.
As soon as the Depression ended, the South, like the rest of the nation, was hit with another blow: World War II. Southerners crowded around their radios holding handkerchiefs to their faces as tears rolled down their cheeks; they listened to the horrifying news of Pearl Harbor. Many young men suddenly disappeared from town, and folks prayed that the names of these men would not appear on the injured, missing, or worst of all dead list in the newspaper.
In the nearby town of Opelika, Alabama, Jay’s future wife Barbara Glenn was living alongside German prisoners of war. While she and her friends played kick-the-can in the streets POWs suffered through the Alabama heat but still experienced the Southern Hospitality that was characteristic of our family. Her brother John, my great-uncle, was in the Pacific serving his country as a Navy Sea Bee.
World War II ended and John came home. Despite the fact that he was in his twenties his hair was white and would be until he died. The stress had taken the color from his hair and the joy from his eyes and he returned a different man.
And then, after what felt like a million years but almost as quickly as it had started, the war ended. The streets were flooded with people rejoicing and kissing and laughing. The liquor flowed and hearts were full. Life seemed as if it were turning back around.
After the war America seemed like a joyful place again. Folks had survived the Great Depression and then a war that had shaken them to their core. Men were returning home, going to college, marrying their sweethearts, and quickly starting families.
Our family moved again, this time to Opelika, Alabama, a town right next door to what we hail as the greatest institution in the United States of America: Auburn University, home of the Tigers, although at the time it was Alabama Polytechnic University. Our passion for Auburn ran deeper and more passionately than the red clay beneath our feet. To this day Farishes would give our heart and soul to see Auburn football win, and even more than that we’d give an arm or a leg (or both) to see them destroy the University of Alabama.
Jay played Auburn basketball and was all Southeastern Conference. He was drafted by the Lakers but chose to serve his country in Korea and was there for several years.
In Opelika in the sixties the issue of segregation was unavoidable. Rosa Parks was making news, and our family prayed for her and supported her. Their deeply held Christian beliefs gave them wisdom to see that racism was hurting our society and not helping it.
Our family prayed for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and wept when he was assassinated. They were progressive (for their day) in that they put their children in public school while other white parents shuttled their children to the local private schools to keep them away from the black children.
Our family fought the race barrier after they moved to Atlanta, when segregation was illegal but still practiced, and they stood up against racism in the places they lived, ate, and shopped.
In the 1960s the segregation war was in full force. White families were pulling their children out of public schools and placing them in private ones. Protestants were even sending their children to Catholic schools to avoid black schools.
As I said, my grandfather grew up in Monroeville. He was seen as the town’s athlete from a young age. Nicknamed “Bubber” (pronounced Bubba) in his childhood, he excelled in every sport he played, but mostly basketball and football.
A famous young woman was growing up a few houses down from Bubba, and right across the street from his grandmother’s house. That young woman was Harper Lee, who would write the novel that changed America, To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper, who went by the nickname “Nelle,” was a tomboy, and would often find herself knocking at Bubba’s door and inviting herself into a pickup game of roundball or football.
Nelle’s best friend, Truman Capote, was also in Monroeville during the summer and was known as a bit of a wimp to Bubba and his friends. Whenever they played football, Truman was always the center; however, Bubba and his friends would later joke that Truman accomplished more than they ever would. They mocked him for sitting at the general store and scribbling in his notebooks, but in the end Truman ended up doing just fine.
When Gregory Peck came to Monroeville for the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird Bubba took him to breakfast and until he died loved to tell the story of what a kind man Gregory Peck was.
Bubba’s athletic talent made him the star of his town. He got a scholarship to a small college in south Alabama for a year, and then transferred to Auburn. Monroeville had someone to hope in. Every time Bubba played well (which was often) Monroeville stood behind its man.
He then met Barbara Glenn and they married after a long courtship. Bubba turned down an offer to play for the then-Minneapolis Lakers and instead chose to serve his country in the Korean Conflict. He joined the Air Force and spent several years overseas.
When Jay came home, his family moved to Opelika, Alabama. His three children, Julie, and identical twins Steve and John, were in elementary school. The segregation battle was present even in sleepy Opelika.
Jay and his other family members living in Opelika who had young children were all active in the segregation debate. Nina’s cousin, Winston Smith T, was adamant that they keep their children in public schools.
When all the other parents were taking their white children out of the schools and putting them in private schools, the Farishes stayed in public school. And when the schools hired a black teacher, the Farishes stayed.
Then they moved to Atlanta. Jay joined the Atlanta Country Club to play golf with his work friends. The caddies there were all black men who weren’t allowed to fish on the grounds or play the course unless accompanied by a member, and so Jay made friends with them. He went fishing with them and played with them. He would take his children and grandchildren to fish with the caddies when few other club members would.
Among other things, Jay stood for his faith. His faith in Jesus as the Son of God was the reason that he did all that he did and the reason he broke the barriers he broke.
Because of Jay I stand up against judgment and hatred because of race and refuse to discriminate. My family and I love others with our whole hearts.
And now Jay is gone. However, the legacy he’s left behind for his children and their children will continue to help them stand up for victims of injustice. We are proud of his service to his family, the Auburn family, and his country. But more than that we love him for his love for God.
This poem first appeared in The Echo.
A box of cereal, stale, ants running
Up the side, two brown bananas that
He says cleanse the pores
(If rubbed thoroughly),
An unwrapped chocolate bar
And a plethora of cans, unopened:
In a locked pantry, Little Maddy sits
Plucking the stems
Off Granny-Smiths. Just ten more
Minutes. Maddy, weary, wondering
Just when daddy would come home.
Time: the pantry is unlocked
And out comes light
And apples and, lastly, Maddy.
For the two rotting bananas,
Notes can upon unopened can,
Unwraps the chocolate bar,
Smears chocolate on his fingers,
Stops, thinks how unlikely it is
For apples to lose their stems.
This essay originally appeared here in storySouth.
Nelle Harper Lee is in her eighties and spending her final years embroiled in lawsuits. For some time I’ve awaited the publication of a book she is rumored to have written about an Alabama salesman who got wealthy by murdering multiple wives and collecting the life insurance proceeds. My sources—all reliable people—insist the book is complete, but I don’t know whether it is or will be published.
One of my earliest memories is of a bookcase at my grandparents’ beach house in Destin, Florida, that held the films my grandparents considered classics: Dr. Zhivago, Patton, Gone With the Wind, and, among others, The Sound of Music. I remember one film above all because it was set off from the others, as if on display: To Kill a Mockingbird.
Few books have captivated me as has To Kill a Mockingbird. I first read it in elementary school. Too young to understand its complexities, I adored Atticus Finch and decided that I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. In high school, I named my dog Atticus. Then my sister got a cat. We named it Scout. Neither animal lived up to its namesake: Atticus was needy and pathetic, Scout skittish and brain-dead.
I was born into the book as others were born into money. My grandfather, Papa, was raised in Monroeville, Alabama, by way of Atmore, Alabama, where he was born in 1929. Because the Depression had hit Papa’s family especially hard, a charitable doctor in Atmore delivered Papa for free.
Shortly after Papa was born, Great-Granddaddy moved his family to Monroeville and worked for various car businesses, never earning much money. Papa, tall, strong, and handsome, was also something of an athlete. He earned a basketball scholarship to Auburn, left Monroeville for college, graduated, and then served in the U.S. Air Force. In 1955, he married his college sweetheart, Barbara Glenn Farish, my grandmother, whom I call “Nina.” Nina and Papa moved to Monroeville, where they lived until 1959. Their stay was short. Within a year, they left for Oklahoma and then returned to Alabama to live in Opelika until they made their final move to Atlanta. Papa’s Monroeville days were over, save for his visits to relatives.
Great-Granddaddy, however, lived in Monroeville until his death in 1991, the year his beloved Atlanta Braves made it to the World Series just one season after finishing with the worst record in baseball. I often visited Great-Granddaddy in his small, white-wood house with the gravel driveway and grass basketball court that was littered with pecans dropped from the trees above. Papa’s aunt, my Great Aunt Jewel, the only person I had known who was confined to a wheelchair—she had Polio—lived next door and owned one thousand cats. When I asked mom why Aunt Jewel lived near her brother for so long, mom said, “Health, sweetie.”
Monroeville was home to two of the 20th century’s greatest authors: Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, who was born in Monroeville in 1926, and Truman Capote, Lee’s friend, schoolmate, and neighbor, who lived in Monroeville until the third grade, at which point he moved to New York City. He continued to summer in Monroeville with his aunts, whom Papa called “wild-haired” women. Lee was four years older than Papa. “She was,” he would say whenever he was probed about the age difference, “in the 12th grade when I was in the eighth grade.”
“Back then,” he used to say, referring to his childhood in Monroeville, “there was nothing to do, so kids had to use their imaginations.” He told me about how Lee and Capote had, despite their young ages and, in the case of Capote, lack of physical prowess, constructed a tree house with the assistance of Lee’s brother, Edwin. “They formed a club up there,” Papa said, “and to be in the club you had to do certain things.” Papa never said what those things were, but he did say that he had been admitted into the tree house.
I was in the third grade when I went to Great-Granddaddy’s funeral in Monroeville. I recall a few things clearly from that weekend: Great-Granddaddy’s open-casket, Swing-Low-Sweet-Chariot, and the endless pecans, which I gathered from the yard and placed into an old potato sack. Nina bought the pecans from me for one dollar. I thought I was rich, and in some ways, I was.
I also remember Papa telling stories about Lee and Capote that weekend. I delighted in these and shared them with my teachers, who seemed both impressed and skeptical. Papa said that Lee was a tomboy who wouldn’t wear dresses and was always in trouble. She would show up at the grass basketball court in his backyard and play with the boys. His descriptions of the girlhood Lee resemble her own portrayal of Scout Finch, whom the character Aunt Alexandra chastised for tomboyishness. The narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird says that Aunt Alexandra was “fanatical on the subject of [Scout’s] attire” and insisted that Scout “could not possibly hope to be a lady if [she] wore britches.” Whenever Scout declared that she “could do nothing in a dress,” especially not play, Aunt Alexandra would inform her that girls weren’t “supposed to be doing things that required pants.”
Papa’s attitude toward Capote was mixed. He took pride in him, but didn’t want to glorify him, either. If I asked Papa to describe the boyhood Truman, he would answer, flatly, “Capote was a weird boy.” I had to press him for details, perhaps because he did not want to admit that he and his friends had, as one might expect of seven and eight year old boys, teased Capote.
Capote was not like the other kids and did not fit in. He frequented the drug store with a satchel full of papers and pencils, wearing knickers, stockings, and a funny cap and talking with flute-like intonations. He would sit in the drug store for hours, drinking Coca-Cola and producing paper after paper from his satchel, scribbling lines of prose and stacking the finished pages until he’d made a paper tower stretching from the table to his chin.
“What are you doing in there, boy?” Papa and the other boys would ask.
To which Capote would say, “I’m writing a book.” Then Papa and the other boys would laugh because the notion that someone in Monroeville, Alabama, could write a whole book was, they thought, silly, if not downright preposterous.
Capote proved my grandfather wrong and wrote many books; Papa came to admire Capote.
Papa was not especially vocal about his relationship to Lee or Capote until he retired, but once he retired, it was hard to keep him quiet about it. When I went away for college, he made a name for himself at the local high school by lecturing in my cousins’ classrooms. He drawled on about Monroeville and Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and specified the residents on whom Lee had based her characters. “Bubba,” Nina objected more than once—Papa didn’t like the nickname Bubba, and only Nina could call him that—“you best not tell all about the Monroeville folks. You’re likely to get sued.”
Papa laughed, kept giving lectures, and never got sued.
Open to the first few pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, and you’ll see a disclaimer: “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, persons, living or dead, is coincidental.” If you had asked Papa about this disclaimer, he would have told you it was hogwash.
When I graduated from college, having earned a degree in literature, I moved to Japan to teach English. Before leaving the States, I arranged to have supper with Papa so we could talk about Harper Lee.
He and I sat at his kitchen table, in Sandy Springs, Georgia, eating boiled shrimp and drinking Nina’s sweet tea, a bowl of cocktail sauce, a copy of The Monroe Journal (dated July 25, 2002, and headlined “A.C. Lee, the perfect ‘Atticus Finch’”), and three stacks of papers between us. On one piece of paper, Papa drew a map. On another, he listed Monroevillians and their corresponding characters from To Kill a Mockingbird. The list looked like this:
Scout Finch……….Harper Lee
Jem Finch…………Edwin Lee
Dill Harris………….Truman Capote
Boo Radley……….Son Boulware
Mr. Ewell…………..Mr. Ezell
Maudie……………..Grandmother Mosey Neighbor
Mr. Tate, Sheriff…..Sheriff Sawyer
Mr. Radley…………Mr. Boulware
Maycomb…………..Monroeville Macon County…….Monroe County
“This,” he said, indicating a sloppy square on his map, “is the courthouse, and this is the post office.” He also indicated the jail, the drug store, the elementary school; Selma Street, Montgomery Street, and Mobile Street; and some homes labeled “my home,” “Grandmother (Maudie),” “Faulk,” “Harper Lee,” “Radley, Boo,” and “Dill.”
And so it went. Papa specified who lived where, why, and for how long. He explained how Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper’s father, served as the model for Atticus and how Edwin Lee, Harper’s brother, served as the model for Jem. He also explained how the “real” Boo Radley was Son Boulware.
The narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird introduces Boo as “a malevolent phantom” whom she had never seen but whose very breath caused azaleas to freeze “in a cold snap.” She describes the Radley house as adjoining the schoolyard and declares that a “baseball hit into the Radley yard was a lost ball and no questions asked.” Papa testified to the truth underlying this legend, saying that he and his friends would play baseball in the schoolyard and occasionally hit or throw a ball into Son Boulware’s yard. They would run up to the fence to see if Son would come out of the house to get the ball. He never did. But the ball would be back in the schoolyard the next morning. Papa swore that this was how Lee got the idea for the knothole in which Boo deposited gifts for Scout and Jem.
One day, when Papa was working for a Mr. Gardner, who ran a grocery store, Papa was called on to deliver a basket of groceries to Mrs. Boulware. He had told Mr. Gardner that he’d deliver groceries to anybody but the Boulwares, but Mr. Gardner would have none of it and ordered Papa to make the delivery. Papa, who had a bike with a big basket for carrying things to and from school, collected the groceries and set out for the Boulware home.
He rode up to the Boulware’s yard—which, he said, was tidy to the point of exhibitionism—and chanced his way through the gate of the picket fence, tottering up the steps to the front porch: the very porch, perhaps, that Jem had conquered to impress Scout and Dill. For some reason, Papa decided to go around to the back door; the porch, you see, stretched the length of the house. The groceries were heavy and slipping from his hands. When he turned the corner, he saw Son, or Boo, who hopped out of the porch swing and ran inside just as quickly as Papa could drop the groceries and jolt the other way. Papa always maintained that Son was “white as a sheet” that day. He rode his bike back to the grocery store and announced to Mr. Gardner that he would never deliver another thing to that house.
Papa used to describe the particularities and peculiarities of Mr. Boulware, Son’s father, a man who never worked a steady job and who raised chickens and cultivated a beautiful vegetable garden. “He swapped chickens for groceries,” Papa explained. “He’d leave his house every day, about 11:00, walking right by grandmother’s, and I’d watch him sometimes from behind grandmother’s shades, and he’d go three places: the post office, the courthouse, and the Jitney Jungle. He’d always return by noon.”
Papa claimed that Lee modeled the character Miss Maudie on his grandmother, who would scold him and his friends when she caught them spying on the Boulwares: “Y’all leave that family alone! They’ve never done anything to you!”
Papa alleged, as well, that Lee modeled her characters on the following people:
Edwin Lee as Jem. Known simply as “Ed.” Ed went to Auburn. That he, or anyone for that matter, went to Auburn is of tremendous significance to my family: all my grandparents—save for my paternal grandmother, who never attended college—attended Auburn; both my parents attended Auburn; my uncles attended Auburn; my sister attended Auburn; and a plethora of first, second, third, fourth, and fifth cousins attended Auburn; I’m a doctoral candidate at Auburn. Nina’s family, the Glenns, have a dorm at Auburn named for them; and Glenn Street runs through the edges of Auburn’s campus.
Amasa Coleman Lee as Atticus. Harper Lee’s father. A lawyer who never actually attended law school. He handled mostly wills and estates. He raised his family as Methodists and served on the board of the church. Papa heard him speak on several occasions and characterized him as a dry speaker who rattled change in his pockets while he talked.
Georgianna as Calpurnia. In the book, Calpurnia looked after Scout and Jem, but Papa claimed that was Mrs. Lee’s job and that Harper Lee had chosen not to include Mrs. Lee in the book. Georgianna was a cook who lived in a small residence behind the Lees’ house. A.C. Lee did not drive her home after work, the way Atticus did for Calpurnia. Papa described Georgianna as a hefty woman who wore bright red lipstick and played the accordion in the afternoons. She was, apparently, an atrocious accordion player.
Mr. Ezell as Mr. Ewell. Ezell, like Ewell, was, in Papa’s words, “poor white trash.” He was an alcoholic who never worked. He and his family lived outside of town and were supported by Mrs. Ezell, who ironed, washed clothes, and undertook other odds-and-ends to make a living. Ezell’s family lived in a house that someone else abandoned, and the Ezell children started school each year but always dropped out within three weeks on account of the other children laughing at them. The Ezell children never had proper clothes. Papa claimed that their family lived in that once-abandoned house until about the year he left for college. Then they disappeared, and nobody in Monroeville, at least to Papa’s knowledge, knew where they went.
“Harper Lee used fake names to refer to real Monroeville people,” Papa insisted. “She did it, I suspect, to avoid lawsuits.” He would follow up by saying that Lee couldn’t fool those who had lived in Monroeville, who had spent their days with the actual people so easily identifiable in Lee’s fiction. Papa didn’t know what to make of the fact that Lee had omitted some of her closest friends and relatives from the book—her sisters Alice and Marie, for example. He set aside the question by saying, “I suspect she wanted to make the book seem more like fiction.”
When I was eight years old, I made a discovery much like the one Scout and Jem made about Atticus’s sharpshooting skills. Nina and Papa had a Siamese cat named Susie who would sneak into the attic through unknown passageways. One afternoon, she snuck away, and I went looking for her in the upstairs bedroom. I looked under the bed, behind the shower curtain, on top of the bookcase. No Susie.
Then I saw the closet door was cracked open. I pulled it all the way open and saw a long, coffin-like case on the shelf above the clothes. I pulled it down and examined it. It was about five feet long, tapering hexagonal at the tips; it had a locked, split lid. There was nothing particularly ornamental about it, so I supposed that there was no harm in opening it. Although it was locked, its lid gave way without resistance. When that happened, I gasped, horrified, and dropped the case to the floor. My heart fluttered. Inside was a shotgun. The first I’d ever seen.
I hadn’t known Papa to be a hunter or a rifleman, but when I summoned forth the courage to pick up the case and reinstate to its proper place, I saw two or three trophies, on the shelf, that were shaped like riflemen. Apparently, Papa was a good shot.
Just as I knew nothing of Papa’s marksmanship, Scout and Jem knew nothing of Atticus’s marksmanship—until, that is, old Tim Johnson, a neighbor’s dog struck mad with rabies, materialized in the street one afternoon, “walking dazedly in the inner rim of the curve parallel to the Radley house” and “advancing at a snail’s pace.” The narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird describes Tim Johnson as “dedicated to one course and motivated by an invisible force that was inching him toward us.”
Heck Tate, the sheriff of Maycomb, surrenders his gun to Atticus, insisting that Atticus take the shot at the canine (“this is a one-shot job,” Tate says). Scout and Jem watch skeptically as their father fumbles with the rifle. The reluctant Atticus—moving “like an underwater swimmer”—takes aim, pausing to adjust his glasses, which, eventually, he lets fall to the street. “With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous,” the narrator says, “Atticus’s hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder.” Then, suddenly, Atticus eliminates the dog with a single shot, leaving Jem “paralyzed” with wonder and confused as Miss Maudie refers to Atticus as “One-Shot Finch.”
“Don’t you go near that dog, you understand? Don’t go near him, he’s just as dangerous dead as alive,” Atticus tells Jem, who says, “yes, sir,” and then stammers, “Atticus?—”
To which Atticus says, “Yes?”
Jem, still stunned, says, “Nothin.’”
Minutes later, Jem remains in “numb confusion” and only “vaguely articulate.” Seeing this, Miss Maudie enlightens him by saying that Atticus was the best shot in Maycomb. When Jem protests that no one had told him this before, Miss Maudie muses aloud in words that, I believe, could have described my Papa:
If your father’s anything, he’s civilized in his heart. Marksmanship’s a gift of God, a talent—oh, you have to practice to make it perfect, but shootin’s different from playing the piano or the like. I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot till he had to, and he had to today.
I never did see Papa shoot a gun, but Nina said that one time he had shot a squirrel off the bird feeder with a BB gun because he thought birds were disadvantaged when it came to competition with the squirrels. When he went to collect the squirrel’s body, the little thing came to, shook its head wildly as if snapping from a trance, and bounded away into the woods. Papa shelved the BB gun that day and never used it again.
As all grandfathers must, Papa passed on stories about his childhood, often while sitting in his reading chair with his grandkids gathered on the floor around him. “When I was a boy,” he would say, “there was no swimming pool. And there was only one movie theater, and it had only one screen. They had to change the picture every day to keep business. On Saturdays, there was a double-feature: two westerns. Admission cost five cents for children, and for another five cents, you could have some popcorn.” This was the world of Lee and Capote, too: the charming yet dangerous world that Lee illuminated for masses of readers.
With Lee’s final, tumultuous years comes the passing of a part of me that I shared with my grandfather through stories. It has been said that pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones. I know my grandfather to have been a good and honest man, and come what may, I’ll tell his stories about Harper Lee and Truman Capote and Monroeville to my children and, perhaps one day, my grandchildren, that they, too, might tell their offspring. Good folks like Harper Lee and my grandfather can’t be kept alive forever—Papa died in May of this year—but this isn’t true for the stories they leave behind. Those live. They must, for the sake of soul and bone, and for the wisdom of our posterity.