Literature and art reflect reality—good and bad

Willis Webb

When playwright Hor- ton Foote died in early March, Texas and America lost not only a gifted writer, but also a great advocate for small towns.

Foote grew up in Wharton and maintained a home there for his entire 92-plus years as well as homes in New York and New Hampshire. He won a Pulitzer for The Young Man from Atlanta and Oscars for screenplays To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies.

As a teenager, Foote went to Hollywood to become an actor then wound up in New York where he worked with Agnes DeMille. She read his writing and encouraged him to continue. His play, Dividing the Estate, a family saga currently running on Broadway, is a Tony award contender. The Tony eluded Foote in his long life.

His first play, Wharton Dance, a one-act, debuted in 1940. Foote's first full-length play was Texas Town, which opened in 1941. His most widely produced play was The Trip to Bountiful, with which many of us who grew up in small towns can identify. It's the story of an elderly woman who sets about visiting her hometown, of which she has many fond memories, only to discover almost nothing remains.

His writing captured the true essence of ordinary small town folks. Foote portrayed their search for home and roots, the draw of family relationships and the inevitable accompanying pain.

"I'm not sentimental about small towns," Foote said. "I love them, but I realize that life is tough ever y where, big city or small town.

"One thing has struck me about human beings. For all the terrible things people are given to face, and even though some go under, you also find there are those who just carry on and somehow make sense of it all."

While he wrote many plays, screenwriting brought him a bit more fame. Foote adapted the screenplay of To Kill a Mockingbird from a best-selling novel by Harper Lee.

Gregory Peck starred in this Great Depression-era story as a white law yer (Atticus Finch) representing a black man (Tom Robinson) accused of raping a white woman. The accused man is an uneducated field hand whose speech is slurred and who shows something typical of the times in the South, deference to whites.

Finch/Peck's noble undertaking is, of course, almost unheard of in the South of those times. It brings a great deal of scorn on Finch, a widower, and his two young children, Scout, a girl, and Jim, a boy.

Also, unfortunately not untypical of the time is the fact that Robinson is murdered. The father of the alleged victim learns from his daughter that she was not raped but rather tried to cover up an affair by accusing Robinson of rape. The father, in an attempt to cover up the false accusation and to get back at Finch, tries to kill the lawyer's children. They are saved by their next-door neighbor, Boo Radley, an intellectually challenged man who is rarely seen in public. Radley, played in a first film role by Robert Duvall, kills the father.

The book and the movie are the subject of much debate, along with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, about what should or should not be taught in the classroom.

The books and the movies offend many African Americans. There is usage of the "N" word in all and, as in the description of Tom Robinson, the portrayals are unflattering if nonetheless true of those times. In particular, many young African Americans are completely turned off by the teaching of these as literary classics in public schools.

Some white teachers are uncomfortable teaching these pieces of literature, especially because of the discomfort some black students and their parents feel. And, a great many whites are still extremely lost when it comes to open discussion of the quest for racial equality.

While protests may be understandable on the surface, these books and movies represent a time in our history and culture that, while unpleasant, are nonetheless truthful and must be understood and dealt with in order to move past that history. Often, art and literature are excellent ways to gain the necessary depth of understanding.

We can be thankful for writers like Horton Foote, Harper Lee and Mark Twain for presenting the truth of those times. Sometimes the truth hurts terribly but ignoring the truth and not learning from it causes our country even greater harm.

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2009-05-28 digital edition

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