Lessons from Our Literary Parents
“Babbott Lecture” derives lessons on living a meaningful life from Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch and John Steinbeck’s Ma Joad
|Celeste Tramontin, Upper School English teacher delivers the second of two annual lectures as holder of the Frank L. Babbott Chair of Literature and the Arts, presented on the morning of Wednesday, February 13, 2013, to all Upper School students in the Chapel. The Babbott Chair is one of the highest honors bestowed upon a Packer faculty member by the Head of School, and the accompanying lectures are one of the school’s most cherished and anticipated traditions.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” stated Celeste Tramontin, Upper School English teacher, standing at the Chapel’s podium. “For me, 2012 felt a bit like one of [Thomas] Paine’s trying times — with fiscal cliffs and growing unrest in the Middle East, with the ravages of Hurricane Sandy and the unspeakable horrors in Newtown, CT … So, when I started experiencing this Thoreau-like quiet desperation, I did what English teachers throughout time have done. I sat down and read.”
“Two characters, in particular, helped me shed my weariness, and served, fittingly, as surrogate parents guiding me back to the path of meaning,” Ms. Tramontin said. “I say, fittingly, because these characters are two of the greatest literary parents of all time: Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath and Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Both Atticus Finch and Ma Joad occupy hallowed ground in the canon of American literature, and their creators, Harper Lee and Jon Steinbeck, located them deftly within a true-to-life historical and socio-cultural context. Both persevered through the seemingly insurmountable challenges of the times: for Ma Joad the poverty and despair of the westward migration in the Dust Bowl days; and for Atticus the duty of defending the principles of humanity within the suffocating grip of the Jim Crow South.
These two literary parents, Ms. Tramontin explained, model lessons on living a meaningful life in three ways: 1. having a sense of purpose; 2. recognizing the sacred and feeling wonder and gratitude; and 3. remembering that other people matter (empathy and kindness).
Ms. Tramontin chose these themes for the second of two annual lectures as holder of the Frank L. Babbott Chair of Literature and the Arts, presented on the morning of Wednesday, February 13, 2013, to all Upper School students in the Chapel. The Babbott Chair is one of the highest honors bestowed upon a Packer faculty member by the Head of School, and the accompanying lectures are one of the school’s most cherished and anticipated traditions.
A Sense of Purpose
“These characters are two of the greatest literary parents of all time.”
“In Time magazine’s list of the 100 best literary characters of all time, Atticus ranks No. 7 … and for very good reasons,” said Ms. Tramontin. “A dedicated attorney, Atticus has great respect for the law, even as he acknowledges that it often falls short of the justice it promises.”
“Atticus’s purpose is to raise his children well, serve the law justly, and, by being a man of honor, to call people to the decency of which they are capable. He is, in short, what we all would want in a father and what we all should strive to be,” she said. “Atticus teaches us that sometimes our purpose will lead us into difficult situations, but if the purpose is true, we have to continue, even if we are licked before we started.”
Comparing this purpose to that of Ma Joad, as her family struggles to move house and home across the desert to California, Ms. Tramontin said: “Ma’s purpose is simple and unrelenting. She will hold the family together. She’ll use a jack handle if she must, but by God she will keep the Joads moving forward together as long as she can … And so Ma never sways, never falters, never despairs, even in the direst of circumstances … A citadel, indeed, Ma is a tower of strength and love.”
Ms. Tramontin continued: “We all cry for work that is real, for a purpose to guide us, a task in which we can submerge ourselves. As Kant says ‘To be is to do.’ And as Sartre replies ‘To do is to be.’”
Recognizing the Sacred
“Atticus teaches us [that] the purpose is true, we have to continue, even if we are licked before we started.”
As great literary parents, Ms. Tramontin continued, both Ma and Atticus are also attuned to the sacredness of the human spirit. Ma tells her pregnant daughter, Rose of Sharon:
“ … dyin’ is a piece of all dyin’, and bearin’ is a piece of all bearin’ … An’ then things ain’t lonely any more. An’ then a hurt don’t hurt so bad, ‘cause it ain’t a lonely hurt no more.”
“Ma’s words ring of deep spirituality,” said Ms. Tramontin. “She recognizes the connection of everyone in birth and death, and she sees how the commonality of that experience makes it a sacred thing.”
Similarly, Atticus forces his children to read to the cantankerous Mrs. Dubose every day for over a month, knowing that she is fighting an addiction to pain killers and waging an extraordinary battle to die drug-free. He tells his charges:
“I wanted you to see something about her—I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.”
Ms. Tramontin said: “Here, Atticus recognizes the holiness of Mrs. Dubose’s fight. His compassion gives him the ability to see the sacred in what most of us would deem merely unpleasant.”
Connecting this idea to the daily lives of her students in the audience, Ms. Tramontin said: “I would argue that these sacred moments come constantly — in the forms of transcendent music and dance, an elegant math problem, a stunning piece of art, the balance of a beautiful chemical equation. All throughout your day at Packer, there are sacred moments that remind us of the beauty of human ability. How can we not feel a sense of wonder and gratitude at such things?”
Other People Matter
“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough … As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.”
Presenting this quote from the young Scout at the end of To Kill a Mockinbird, Ms. Tramontin said: “[She] now understand[s] Atticus’s greatest lesson — that in the larger world, we are inextricably connected with people. And in caring for them and in allowing them to care for us, we make the world a bit holier and make ourselves a bit happier.”
“Rose of Sharon has become what her mother wants her to be: a person who recognizes the human worth of others.”
Ms. Tramontin continued: “Atticus life’s philosophy is guided by kindness, by this idea that other people matter. His advice to Scout that you never really understand people until you climb around in their skin is his guiding principle.”
“Like Atticus, Ma also wants her children to understand that as members of humanity it is incumbent on us to help one other,” she said. “The last scene of the novel shows clearly that Ma’s daughter Rose of Sharon has become what her mother wants her to be: a person who recognizes the human worth of others.”
“[In] of the most disturbing and the most beautiful scenes in all of literature … ” she said. “Rose of Sharon … literally and metaphorically offers the starving stranger the milk of human kindness.”
Ms. Tramontin concluded: “Ma and Atticus’s lessons, while no panacea, might be a gentle antidote to our own despair — a reminder that although we must live in the world as it is, we can try to make it as it should be. And in acting with empathy and purpose and wonder, we ourselves become transformed even as we transform others. What more meaningful life is there?”
“Although we must live in the world as it is, we can try to make it as it should be.”
At the end of the lecture, Ms. Tramontin received a standing ovation from the assembled Upper School.
Head of School Bruce L. Dennis thanked her on behalf of the Packer community, saying: “Long after we complete our formal education, we will have an opportunity to think back on those moments that embody the greatest teaching we’ve ever seen, performed by those wonderful teachers who have given the gift of sharing their experience with us. I suspect for many of us who are here this morning, this will be one of those memories.”