Summer Reading: Meet Harper, Meet Theodor, Meet Walt, Meet America

As the summer of 2015 begins to wind down, from the media standpoint, it can be said unequivocally that it has been Trump Time.

The attention given to and appeal of Donald Trump says something about who we are as Americans. We say more about that at the end of this blog.

For now, as the time remaining for summer reading slips away, we'd like to turn our attention to and concentrate on three books -- two of which have just been discovered and one of which has been rediscovered -- that also say something about who we are as Americans. They are:

  • Harper Lee's, Go Set a Watchman
  • Theodor Geisel's, What Pet Should I Get?
  • Walt Whitman's, Drum-Taps

To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize and is unquestionably one of the most beloved American novels. It tells the story of racial injustice and coming of age in the South through the eyes of Scout (Jean Louise) Finch, a young girl growing up in a small Alabama town.

At the heart of the story is Tom Robinson, an African-American who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. Attorney Atticus Finch, Scout's color blind and compassionate father, does a masterful job of defending Robinson and demonstrating his innocence, but the all white jury convicts him nonetheless.

Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch in the movie. His compelling performance in that role made Finch an enduring positive role model for lawyers and a stellar example of racial tolerance and acceptance of differences.

Then along comes Go Set A Watchman, the book which Harper Lee wrote about the same events before she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. It tells the story from Atticus Finch's perspective. And, that perspective is a racist one.

Atticus expresses mean-spirited comments about blacks to his daughter. And, he is a member of the Maycomb County City Council which is dedicated to stopping racial desegregation after the Brown vs. the Board Education school integration decision.

What does Watchman say about us as Americans? It tells us that there is a group who were racists in the Deep South at the time of the book's writing. Headline events of the past few years with shootings across this country tell us that there is a group who is still racist.

What Pet Should I Get? by Theodor Suess Geisel was written in 1960 the same year that To Kill a Mockingbird was written. But, that is where the similarity ends.

Mockingbird was written about growing up. Pet was written about hoping one will never have to.

Kids love Geisel's Dr. Seuss books: The Cat in the Hat; Green Eggs and Ham; Horton Hears a Who; and, How the Grinch Stole Christmas to name just a few.

Parents love these books too. Generation after generation of parents have reveled in having their children read Dr. Suess' tales to them.

That's because in the process they rediscover their inner child. As Geisel said, "Children want the same things we want: to laugh, to be challenged, to be entertained and delighted."

What does Pet say us about us as Americans? It tells us that there is a group -- a very large group we believe -- that is humanistic. People who value joy and awe and sometimes the ridiculous and the absurd.

Drum-Taps, a collection of civil war poems by Walt Whitman, was not written in 1960. It was published nearly a century earlier in 1865 and was never published in its entirety again until April of this year

Whitman's much more famous collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, which he frequently updated and edited grew from a small book of only 12 to almost 400 poems during his life-time. It has been published regularly.

Whitman's well-known elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Courtyard Bloomed", written after the death of President Abraham Lincoln is in Grass. It was originally written for an expanded version of Taps.

The elegiac "Lilacs" is not representative of the entire collection of Drum-Taps. This collection was a reflection on the Civil War, its necessity and immediate aftermath, and includes sections describing Whitman's intimate relations with some of the soldiers he met during the war.

Richard Kreitner notes in a Boston Globe article about Drum-Taps, Henry James writing for The Nation, issued a scathing review of the collection when it was published in 1865. James called it "an insult to art." And, about the artist, he said, "Mr. Whitman is very fond of blowing his own trumpet."

What does Taps say us about us as Americans? It tells us many things. One of them is that there is a group of us who are idiosyncratic, individualistic -- maybe even perhaps, egotistical.

This brings us back to Donald Trump and those citizens supporting him. We would never accuse Mr. Trump of "blowing his own trumpet." No need to comment on the obvious.

What is less obvious is who is attracted to Trump's pronouncements. In a recent column, George Will opined, "They are certainly not tea partyers, those earnest, issue-oriented, book club organizing activists who are passionate about policy."

We disagree with Mr. Will. We don't have any hard evidence. But, we are fairly confident that a large contingent of those of the tea party persuasion is counted in Trump's polling numbers. Others in this category most probably include those who are fed up with government and politicians as usual.

What does the support for Trump says about us as Americans? It tells us that there is a group that is completely disaffected and alienated from the traditional political process.

But, believe it or not that group is a lot smaller than it seems. As Matt Bai observes, citing a blog by Kevin Drum, "Trump has been drawing the support of less than a quarter of Republican primary voters who in turn make up less than a quarter of the voting public.'

In summary, in spite of the all of the media hullabaloo and the measure of central cacophony in the 24/7 news cycle, our summer reading list says that we as Americans are an incredibly diverse and complex group.

Read that and weep. Or, read that and smile. But, no matter what -- read. It makes for a better summer and a better America.