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: While “To 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?
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.