The audience is motivated — and briskly buying advance tickets — by the book's well publicized fiftieth anniversary.
It's just our dumb luck that the media is celebrating Harper Lee's only published novel as a national treasure.
For example, NPR 820 WOSU-AM's Ann Fisher has invited me to discuss Mockingbird on her All Sides on Wednesday from 11 a.m.-noon. (During the hour, there will also be a 20-minute interview with Mary McDonagh Murphy, author of Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird.)
What is it about this book? Plenty of books turn 50. Why is Mockingbird so treasured? Why is it routinely rated by Americans as the #2 book that all civilized people should read? (The Bible is #1. No matter how wonderful our performance, Mockingbird seems unlikely to take over first place.)
It's About Dad.
While the classic text plumbs a great many important themes (as previously covered here), I think there is a reason why it's a national treasure, routinely rated by Americans as the #2 book everyone should read. (The Bible is #1. No matter how wonderful our performance, we're unlikely to take the top spot.)
Mockingbird is so treasured, I believe, because it is a beautifully written, easily savored expression of appreciation for our fathers.
Our hearts are warmed when Miss Maudie summarizes the town's admiration of Atticus Finch: "We trust him to do right." (Playing Atticus can go to one's head.)
Perhaps you might not have benefited from a great relationship with your father. Still, you understand when — moments later — Dill stops in his tracks to reiterate the opinion. "They trust him to do right."
We love good fathers.
This respect is hard wired into us as animals.
Laws — from the Fifth Commandment (upgraded to #4 for Catholics and Lutherans) to the national commemoration of Father's Day — merely codify the eternal appreciation of fatherhood done right.
Happy Father's Day
My own father (of blessed memory for 18 years) was someone trusted to do right.
Trust was placed in him for two reasons:
- He knew how to do right. His insights were ethical. He could hear your problem and respond with helpful words.
- He actually did right. Once you sought his counsel, he didn't betray you by speaking of you to others. He knew that your story was not his to tell.
An example: he never told me who his clients were. He didn't consider that to be his story to tell.
I've learned who they were since his death because many have told me. Some I learned at his deathbed, when they came to pay final respects.
I was initially astounded to realize that his clients were such brilliant, powerful people. They could have worked with any stockbroker in the world. They chose my father. They trusted him to do right.
And he kept their trust by never revealing them to anyone.
Two Stories About My Father
I won't reveal his clients here and now, but here are two stories that reveal something about my dad, trusted to do right.
At a community lunch some years ago, a fellow introduced himself and asked if I was indeed the son of "Art Isaac, the stockbroker."
Yes, I said, expecting to hear a simple: "He was a great guy." (I've heard that a lot.)
But, rather, he launched into this story:
Your father was a great guy. Let me tell you how I met him. When I was in college, I was a bicycle messenger for [big name in town]. Every couple of weeks, [Mr. Big] would give me an envelope and say, "Take this to Art Isaac." I would rush it to him.
Your father would always come greet me personally. As I handed him each envelope, I'd ask: "Whatever you're buying for [Mr. Big], please get me one, too."
The amazing thing: he did. I'd pay for the single share of stock, but he never charged me a commission, let alone an premium for an odd lot transaction. I didn't know how valuable this was.
I never realized it at the time, but he was generously giving me the highest kindness.
I immediately suggested that my father was just being smart. After all, this young man was bringing envelopes filled with cash. Shoot, anyone would have made him jelly doughnuts on the spot, if that might have kept the bike wheels rolling in the same direction.
But the fellow said, "No. Your father would take me — a bike messenger! — to his office to explain why he was recommending the specific investment. He wanted me to learn how to invest. And, because of him, I did. Those lessons served me well."
He did right.
More Important Than Money: Music
Another story, from another grown man who I met in recent years. We met in the same way: "Was Art Isaac your father?"
Some background is helpful. My father was an introvert. He could entertain groups of people, but he repaired to his solitude, in his beloved home office, where he recharged.
It was a small room off the kitchen — originally a maid's room, now wallpapered in grass, harkening back to his army days in the South Pacific.
In a cloth recliner beside his desk, his typewriter, and his library of first editions of W.H. Auden, he would read, with music softly playing.
One evening, he was in The Office, where this fellow found him:
I was a high school friend of your sister. She had a group of kids over. For some reason, I wandered off and started poking around your house.
I opened a door and was startled to be face to face with this man, your father. It was like he was in some sort of magic room.
I'd never met him. He immediately said, "Come in. Sit down."
We talked. And that night, we talked about the music he was enjoying. It was jazz. I had never heard jazz before. Your father told me of his love of jazz. And he did it in such a way that I immediately became a jazz fan.
And I have ever been so. I am a lifelong lover of jazz. Your father gave me that gift. I have always been grateful to him for that gift.
Just jazz? Just music? No big deal?
Very Big Deal
These are the moments that make us what we are.
It's best if those moments are with people worthy of our trust. The people we trust to do right.
We all think of Atticus.
We all think very similarly about Atticus, because he stared down the drunken lynch mob, fighting to defend another human being.
Playing him this coming week, I'm also thinking of Atticus as a father. He was a single parent. Oddly, his children (and their friends) called him by his first name.
Last week, during a break in our evening rehearsal, I asked the young people in the cast, "Why do you call me Atticus? As Southerners, shouldn't you call me 'diddy' — not just in childhood, but throughout your lives? And shouldn't your friend Dill call me Mr. Finch?"
The answers were telling. These actors understand their roles and motivation. (If you come to the show, you're in for a treat.) They said: "Because we respect each other as equals."
I am the son of Atticus.
I've always thought of my father not so much as A Father, but as Someone I Was Lucky Enough To Befriend.
I dedicate my performance this coming week to the loving memory of my father, Arthur J. Isaac, Jr. They trusted him to do right.