Tag Archives: racism

“To Kill a Mockingbird”: Great Book But Not a Great Novel?

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is perhaps the quintessential Book That Mattered: one of the moral touchstones of an entire generation.

It is a book that many of us Baby Boomers (and non-Baby Boomers) fondly recall reading in our younger years, many of us when we were still in high school.


And yet, reading Mockingbird again after forty years or so . . . hate to say it . . . but it is not a great novel. Not even close. I’m not even sure it’s a very good novel. It’s a little too black and white, too unshaded, too stylistically uninventive to rank up there with the best novels of our time.

So we have a bit of a dilemma: here’s a book that many of us love and admire–but, when considered objectively, is not really a very impressive work of art.

How to solve it?

Let’s take a hint from Wallace Stevens and his great poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and consider To Kill a Mockingbird from a number of different perspectives. After all, as Atticus Finch continually reminds us in the novel, we should look at life from other viewpoints:

View #1: WhileTo Kill a Mockingbird” is Not a Great Novel–It Is a Great Book

There are some works of art that never gain much influence or importance in the wider world, that simply never reach or touch many people.

For all its purported greatness, for instance, how many people–even well-educated, well-read people–have actually been affected by Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake? (OK, show of hands, how many of us have actually made it past the first couple of pages?)

On the other hand, there are certain books that are important and influential, that matter to a great many people, that do much good in the world, but nevertheless are not enduring works of art. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin pops to mind.)

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those.

Lee’s novel was a crucial text for those of us coming of age in the Sixties and Seventies. The book taught us about racial tolerance and understanding, about seeing things from another’s perspective, about standing up for what is right–no matter what those around you believe or do.

So what if Mockingbird strikes us today as a little clunky, a little preachy, a little too pat to be considered high art: it may not be a great piece of literature, but it is indisputably a Book That Mattered.

I don’t think I’m being too hard on the book. Here’s just one example of the novel’s occasional ham-fistedness. Scout Finch’s third-grade teacher has been passionately criticizing Hitler and the Nazis for their treatment of the Jews in (pre-war) Germany. Scout asks her brother Jem about it:

“Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?”

“Why sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”

“She hates Hitler a lot . . .”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? . . .

“. . . Well, coming out of the courthouse that night . . . I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em [blacks] a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ turn around and be ugly about folks right at home–“

See what I mean? Not too subtle.

Despite all this, though, Mockingbird was an essential building block in my generation’s moral development. What would the Baby Boom generation be without To Kill a Mockingbird? What would any of us be without it?

to kill a mockingbird

View #2: “Mockingbird” Was a Crucial Plea for Racial Justice at a Critical Time in Our History

Let’s not forget that the novel was published in 1960: on the cusp of the great civil rights upheavals that would roil the nation in the coming decade.

Suddenly, here was a best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize winning book that highlighted and questioned the racial hatred and hypocrisy of the Jim Crow South. Impossible to quantify the book’s precise influence, but it undoubtedly did some good. Probably a great deal of good.

And it was a courageous thing for a young white southern lady from Monroeville, Alabama (not exactly the epicenter of progressive racial attitudes back then) to write a book like this in a place like that.

Even though the novel is set in the Depression, its message was aimed directly at contemporary readers and the contemporary situation. It was undoubtedly the right book at the right time.

Here are Jem Finch and Miss Maudie (a neighbor of the Finches) discussing the guilty verdict that has been delivered against Tom Robinson, the innocent black man accused of raping a white girl. Jem has been lamenting the fact that no one in town (with the exception of Atticus, his father) was willing to stand up for Tom Robinson:

“Who in this town did one thing to help Tom Robinson, just who?”

“His colored friends for one thing, and people like us. People like Judge Taylor. People like Heck Tate. . . . .

“. . . I was sittin’ there on the porch last night, waiting. I waited and waited to see you all come down the sidewalk, and as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step–it’s just a baby-step, but it’s a step.”

View #3: It’s Best to Think of “Mockingbird” as a Young Adult Novel

I don’t believe the term, “young adult fiction” had become an official designation back in 1960. But maybe some of our dilemma about it’s not being a great work of fiction goes away if we just accept the fact that Mockingbird is really a “young adult novel.”

If we all agree that’s what it is, then many of the novel’s shortcomings–the stylistic straightforwardness, the black and white character depictions, the lack of nuance and shading that we would expect (even demand) in a novel aimed at adults–are ameliorated.

Of course! . . . it’s a novel for young people: teenagers, high school kids, freshman in college. Young adults need literature that is reassuring and morally unambiguous. In YA books characters can be (in fact, perhaps need to be) as clearly drawn and uncomplicated as possible: as purely evil as Bob Ewell, the white trash villain of the piece who tries to kill the two young Finch children, or as unabashedly heroic as Atticus Finch.

The novel never asks us for a minute to have more than one view of Atticus Finch:

“Have you ever thought about it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.”

Perhaps we should all just agree with Flannery O’Connor’s early evaluation of Mockingbird as a child’s book (I suspect that if the term “young adult novel” had been in vogue at the time, that’s the designation she would have used). Doing so takes some of the pressure off the book and some of the pressure off of us as readers:

I think for a child’s book it does all right. It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a child’s book. Somebody ought to say what it is.


View #4: Atticus Finch is the Greatest Dad in All Literature.

Has there ever been a better literary dad than Atticus Finch? Even-tempered, articulate, understanding, morally irreproachable. The novel not only insists that Atticus is a great man, great father, great lawyer. He’s a great shot, too!

Which Scout Finch learns to her astonishment when (in her young eyes) boring, middle-aged Atticus calmly shoots down a mad dog with dead-eye precision–even though Atticus adamantly refuses to own or carry a gun:

Miss Maudie grinned wickedly. “Well now, Miss Jean Louise,” she said, “still think your father can’t do anything? Still ashamed of him?

“Nome,” I said meekly.

“Forgot to tell you the other day . . . Atticus Finch was the deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time. . . . . didn’t you know his nickname was Ol’ One-Shot when he was a boy?”

It’s no coincidence that Gregory Peck–who won an Academy Award for playing Atticus in the 1962 film version of Mockingbird (has there ever been a more inspired casting choice?)–was the spitting image of Clark Kent.

Because, no doubt about it, Atticus was Super-Dad. He seamlessly joined the pantheon of great dads from the Fifties and Sixties: Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best, Ozzie Nelson in Ozzie and Harriet, Ward Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver. But with a moral authority and heroic stoicism that even this group couldn’t match.

Unlike my own father, Atticus never raised his voice, lost his cool, or flew off the handle. He was never too tired after coming home from work to provide his children with a reassuring bromide or two.

He was the ideal dad we all yearned for. Oh, how I envied Scout:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–”


“–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

[Of course, I would eventually realize that a blue collar guy like my German immigrant dad–who worked seven days a week, came home exhausted and drenched in sweat and grease from his mechanic’s job, and somehow managed to send five kids through college–was the real hero. But back then, I would have swapped my earthy, heavily-accented dad for white-collar, smooth-talking Atticus in a heartbeat.]


View #5: “Mockingbird” Perfectly Captures the Rhythms of Childhood

As I was re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, it struck me that the novel is really a kind of extended hymn to childhood.

The novel captures the feeling of being a child, of long, seemingly endless summer days, and of trying to fill them up with adventures and story-telling and role-playing. The Boo Radley subplot is really the stuff of childhood imagination, of kids with lots of time on their hands and nary an adult in sight.

Here is Lee’s wonderful description of fictional Maycomb, Alabama:

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.

My favorite character in the novel is Dill, the pint-sized but imaginative and fearless friend who visits Maycomb each summer. I didn’t realize it when I first read the novel, but the character was patterned after Lee’s real-life childhood friend and eventual literary mentor, Truman Capote.

Here Scout and Jem meet Dill for the first time. Listen to how perfectly Harper Lee captures the rhythms and odd cadences of childhood interactions:

We went down to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy–Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting–instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:


“Hey yourself,” said Jem pleasantly.

“I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said, “I can read.”

“So what?” I said.

“I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin’ I can do it . . .”

View #6: “To Kill a Mockingbird” is Well Worth a Read (or Re-Read)

I don’t know why Harper Lee essentially stopped writing after To Kill a Mockingbird. (It was the only book she ever published.) She was also famously reticent about being interviewed or publically discussing the novel. Perhaps she had said all she had to say. Perhaps she realized that she would never again be able to write a book so pure and noble in its intentions.

Reading Mockingbird after all these years is like drinking from a crystal-clear Alabama mountain spring: pure, undiluted, unclouded, not the most complex or sophisticated of drinks . . . but oh so good for you.




Filed under baby boomers, books, literature

“Soul on Ice” . . . Shaken & Stirred

It’s saying something that a book written nearly a half century ago retains the power to provoke, startle, scare, and move us (in almost equal measure). Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968) was a controversial read back in the day. And it remains a polarizing, knotty book these many years later.

My first encounter with Cleaver’s groundbreaking book was in my early college years. I had been reading (without purpose or plan) a number of books about black culture and the black experience in America–books such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), George Jackson’s Soledad Brother (1968), among others.

Soul on Ice was the most daring and disturbing of them all.

soul on ice

I recently asked my older sister, Liz, about Soul on Ice (recalling that she had kept the book on her desk for a long time back in her college years). She sheepishly admitted that she didn’t remember ever actually reading the book–although she did recall conspicuously carrying Soul on Ice around with her on campus.

Back then, having a copy of Soul on Ice was tantamount to a political act. Sure, there was the hipness factor: it had that great cover of a brooding , thoughtful young black man outside the gates of a prison, some white day lilies off to his side.

It was a cool book to own, but more importantly it said something about who you were, how you saw yourself, and what you valued. Consider that just being seen with a copy of Cleaver’s book in certain areas of the country might get you a good ass-kicking or worse.

Racial hatred, violence, and despair hung thick in the air back in those days.

I read Soul on Ice because it seemed important for a white college student like me to try to understand all that frustration and rage and anger. And to get an inside glimpse of a man who was at the very epicenter of the black power movement, an ex-con, admitted ex-rapist, Minister of Information for the Black Panthers, and a #1 badass dude: Eldridge Cleaver.

eldridge cleaver

And then four decades rolled by . . .

In the interim, Cleaver had, shall we say, an oddly checkered career:

  • Involved in a Black Panther shoot-out with the Oakland police in 1968 in which one Panther was killed and two policemen were wounded.
  • Jumped bail and fled to exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France.
  • Returned to the United States in 1975, plead guilty to reduced charges, and was sentenced to 1,200 hours of community service.
  • Became, variously, a born-again Christian, a follower of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Mormon, a crack cocaine addict, a men’s fashion designer (his men’s trousers with a pronounced codpiece, called the “Cleaver sleave,” earned him truckloads of ridicule and puzzlement but no sales), a tree surgeon, a designer of clay flowerpots.
  • Ran, in perhaps his most baffling transformation, as a conservative candidate for the U.S. Senate in the 1986 California Republican Primary.
  • Died in 1998 at the age of 62.

So, after all the violence and turbulence and thunder of the Sixties and Seventies, poor Eldridge ended up as a kind of sad punch line.

But Soul on Ice remains: angry, proud, funny, and undaunted.

soul on ice 2

So, what’s it like to read Soul on Ice today?

Well, it isn’t the slog I expected. Given the political and linguistic excesses of the Sixties, I thought the book would be full of empty, Sixties-era revolutionary rhetoric. Yes, there is some sloganeering, lots of anger, some naiveté about how “the revolution” would unfold, etc. (Cleaver is much better at focusing attention on the problems, not so great at providing realistic or workable solutions.)  But there are many more stretches of clear-headed analysis and overall reasonableness than I anticipated (or remembered).

Cleaver can be an engaging, witty, thoughtful, occasionally very funny writer.

He is hilarious, for instance, when describing how learning to dance the Twist helped uptight whites partially reclaim their alienated bodies:

They were swinging and gyrating and shaking their dead little asses like petrified zombies trying to regain the warmth of life . . .

It’s surprising to recall that Soul on Ice was picked as one of the 10 best books of 1968 by The New York Times. This despite the fact that Cleaver was a convicted criminal, long-time prison inmate, and self-confessed rapist. (I told you it was a controversial book.)

It’s also surprising that Soul on Ice is still (to use a word I hate, but really have to use in this instance) relevant. Amazingly relevant, actually.

There were so many moments as I was re-reading Soul on Ice over the past few days, when I found myself rubbing my eyes in disbelief: are we really still here? Are we still fighting these battles? Has the game changed so little?

Here are just a few examples of what I mean.

Cleaver’s observations about how white Americans prefer their black sports heroes and entertainers to be subservient, apolitical, non-threatening continue to ring true today. (Americans have always hated, still hate mouthy blacks.) His take on Muhammad Ali (vs. Floyd Paterson or Sonny Liston), for instance, is spot on:

There is no doubt that white America will accept a black champion, applaud and reward him, as long as there is no “white hope” in sight.  But what white America demands in her black champions is a brilliant, powerful body and a dull, bestial mind–a tiger in the ring and a pussycat outside the ring.

And Cleaver is astute when it comes to the different value American society places on a white life versus a black life. He recognizes that the civil rights movement only really took hold when white activists were being beaten and killed alongside blacks.

Even well into the 21st century, this troubling double standard still exists:

The racist conscience of America is such that murder does not register as murder, really, unless the victim is white. . . . When white freedom riders were brutalized along with blacks, a sigh of relief went up from the black masses, because the blacks knew that white blood is the coin of freedom in a land where for four hundred years black blood has been shed unremarked and with impunity. America has never truly been outraged by the murder of a black man, woman, or child.

There are many moments in Soul on Ice that feel remarkably current. For example, one of Cleaver’s characters describes an encounter he and his girlfriend have had with a white traffic cop (after running “just a little too late” through a red light):

“‘Say, Boy,’ he said to me, ‘are you color-blind?’ I didn’t want a ticket so I decided to talk him out of it. I went into my act, give him a big smile and explained to him that I was awfully sorry, that I thought I could make it but that my old car was too slow. He talked real bad to me . . . I said a bunch of Yes Sir’s and No Sir’s and he told me to run along and be a good boy. When I drove off, I looked over at my woman and she had turned completely sour. . . . she packed up all her belongings and split.”

There is an eerily similar scene in the Oscar-winning film, Crash (2004) in which a black couple (played by Terence Howard and Thandie Newton) undergo a similar (even more horrendous) encounter with the police. Again, the black man has to resort to subservient play-acting in order to appease the rascist cop and protect himself and his companion. When they get home, his wife is livid with him for not standing up for himself.  The more things change . . .

And Cleaver has his eyes on the international scene as well. He suggests that the racist streak in right-wing America–having been at least partially thwarted by the civil rights movement and legislation at home–finds expression in United States foreign policy, which invariably targets non-white populations for its aggressive impulses. Cleaver, of course, was primarily thinking of the Vietnam War which was raging at the time, but one wonders what he would have made of our recent excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan:

And the right is able to manipulate the people by playing upon the have-gun-will-travel streak in America’s character, coupled with the narcissistic self-image as friend of the underdog. Americans think of themselves collectively as a huge rescue squad on twenty-four-hour call to any spot on the globe where dispute and conflict may erupt.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Soul on Ice is the degree to which Cleaver is brutally honest and unflinching as he tracks his own evolution as a thinker and a human being. He risks losing us in the very first essay of the book:

I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto . . . and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey. . . .

Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women . . .

Thankfully for him and for us, Cleaver’s many years in prison (including stints in San Quentin and Folsom) were spent reading, reflecting, and reconsidering his life’s arc:

After I returned to prison, I took a long look at myself and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong, that I had gone astray–astray not so much from the white man’s law as from being human, civilized–for I could not approve the act of rape. . . . I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered.

That is why I started to write. To save myself.

The Cleaver that emerges in the pages of Soul on Ice is a complicated, polarizing, yet ultimately relatable figure. Perhaps not surprisingly, Malcolm X (another complicated and polarizing figure) holds a special place in Cleaver’s heart. Malcolm’s journey from criminal to adherent of Elijah Muhammad’s racist doctrines to a more humanistic world view mirrors Cleaver’s own journey:

Malcolm X, in the eyes of Elijah’s [Muhammad] followers, had committed the unforgivable heresy when, changing his views and abandoning the racist position, he admitted the possibility of brotherhood between blacks and whites.

. . . there were those of us who were glad to be liberated from the doctrine of hate and racial supremacy. The onus of teaching racial supremacy and hate, which is the white man’s burden, is pretty hard to bear.

Not every aspect of the book has aged gracefully. Cleaver, of course, is no saint and some of his views are impossible to endorse.

His attitudes toward the sexual politics of race, for one, (outlined most fully in the convoluted essay, “The Primeval Mitosis”) can be pretty out there–especially his attitude toward white women. His pronouncements on homosexuality are disgusting and downright indefensible:

Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become the head of General Motors.

But, even with all its flaws, there is a surprisingly bracing dose of truth and sense in Soul on Ice.

Perhaps the final take-away should be: don’t discount this book because you think it is an interesting but dispensable relic from a distant past. Soul on Ice is not a silly time capsule from the Sixties. Even if we don’t like all its messages, there are lessons here still to be learned.


Filed under baby boomers, books, literature