Editor’s Note: This column originally ran in November 2009. With this week’s 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, Paste offers the view of our Books Editor, Charles McNair, aka The Booky Man, on this widely read classic.
Can a novel ever be too good … for its own good?
The book in question is Alabama writer Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. What serious reader does not know something about the book, its cast and crew, odds and ends about its author, details about the 1962 movie, its associations with Truman Capote, etc.?
After nearly 50 years in print, Mockingbird is surely the most widely read work of fiction about race relations ever printed. The book still sells a million copies a year, a staple of the syllabus of high schools and universities all over the world. Harper Lee still lives in the little town of Monroeville, in the Black Belt of Alabama, where she firmly turns down nearly every interview and PR opportunity, as she has since shortly after the book came out. Lee has friends, lots of them, and a social life. But the reporter’s notebook and the unblinking eye of the TV camera never suited her.
Nell Harper Lee wrote of small-town life in a racially stratified mid-1930s South, when black and white was truly black and white. Her story of a heroic father, lawyer Atticus Finch and his children, Jem and the book’s unforgettable narrator Scout, felt something like every rural Southerner’s memoir – at least when it came to the descriptions of everyday customs, colorful neighbors, and the sometimes tense-sometimes tender relationship of blacks and whites.
When the book came out just ninety-five years after the end of the Civil War, most Southerners lived in little towns like the one Harper Lee called Maycomb, her stand-in for Monroeville. These were backwater places where white trash and noble heroes lived just blocks apart, where blacks and whites mingled more often and more intimately than they do today, even while terrible bigotry divided them.
The novel tells of the trial of Tom Robinson, a Negro laborer, who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman, the ultimate taboo of the time. Lawyer Atticus Finch is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, and he labors mightily to see that justice is done, despite the color lines, the inherent prejudice in Jim Crow laws, and the mounting scorn from the white community for his efforts.
Atticus Finch’s courage defending Tom Robinson burned him into the American psyche. The screen role won Gregory Peck a best actor Oscar, highlighting his notable career. And instead of Superman, Chuck Norris or Underdog, Atticus was chosen as the greatest American hero of the 20th century in one notable national poll.
OK. So how can all this notoriety from a novel be anything but good?
Here’s how. I sometimes wonder if To Kill A Mockingbird has spread out over the Southern landscape like a giant live oak, shading out many of the little plants beneath it. It seems to me that once a book like Mockingbird states our racial situation so successfully, well that’s it – what more can be said? What writer wants to sit down and write a book about race that will never, ever be so celebrated?
Now don’t get me wrong – we’ve had some great fiction about race. William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, for instance. And, of course, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. There have been others – Mark Childress’s book Crazy in Alabama stands the test of time. But it seems to me that race relations were, are and will be the great theme of Southern life. And with a sensation like To Kill A Mockingbird as the ultimate declarative statement on race, how easy is it for readers to simply shrug off newer, sharper and more provocative novels before they even make it to the book stores?
I’m also suggesting that there’s a comfort level with To Kill A Mockingbird that allows certain readers to snuggle into its pages and stop testing their attitudes about race. There’s an apron-strings factor – I think too many Southerners wishfully identify with the goodness of Atticus Finch … and actually come to believe, somehow, that they were really like Atticus all along. The truth is that we weren’t. Too many white Southern men and women simply sat rocking on the porch while the lynch mobs marched by. We shelled peas and told one another, well that’s just the way it is.
Please don’t take this to mean that I’m disrespecting Harper Lee’s great book. All I’m asking is this: Isn’t there room for other points of view – less comfortable, more challenging – in fiction? I wonder if the titanic, towering, overpowering success of To Kill A Mockingbird hasn’t actually silenced a flock of other mockingbirds, writers out there singing with all their hearts, but somehow never as clearly heard.
Whatever, Harper Lee gives us reading pleasure. Here’s a section from the book, the famous mad dog scene. Tim Johnson in this section is the name of the poor rabid canine. Mr. Heck Tate is the sheriff of Maycomb. Calpurnia is the family maid for the Finches, a black woman. Jem and Scout are the children of Atticus Finch.
_Tim Johnson was advancing at a snail’s pace, but he was not playing or sniffing at foliage: he seemed dedicated to one course and motivated by an invisible force that was inching him toward us. We could see him shiver like a horse shedding flies; his jaw opened and shut; he was alist, but he was being pulled gradually toward us.
“He’s lookin’ for a place to die,” said Jem.
Mr. Tate turned around. “He’s far from dead, Jem, he hadn’t got started yet.”
Tim Johnson reached the side street that ran in front of the Radley Place, and what remained of his poor mind made him pause and seem to consider which road he would take. He made a few hesitant steps and stopped in front of the Radley gate; then he tried to turn around; but was having difficulty.
Atticus said, “He’s within range, Heck. You better get him now before he goes down the side street – Lord knows who’s around the corner. Go inside, Cal.”
Calpurnia opened the screen door, latched it behind her, then unlatched it and held onto the hook. She tried to block Jem and me with her body, but we looked out from beneath her arms.
“Take him, Mr. Finch.” Mr. Tate handed the rifle to Atticus; Jem and I nearly fainted.
“Don’t waste time, Heck,” said Atticus. “Go on.”
“Mr. Finch, this is a one-shot job.”
Atticus shook his head vehemently: “Don’t just stand there, Heck! He won’t wait all day for you – “
“For God’s sake, Mr. Finch, look where he is! Miss and you’ll go straight into the Radley house! I can’t shoot that well and you know it!”
“I haven’t shot a gun in thirty years -“
Mr. Tate almost threw the rifle at Atticus. “I’d feel mighty comfortable if you did now,” he said.
In a fog, Jem and I watched our father take the gun and walk out into the middle of the street. He walked quickly, but I thought he moved like an underwater swimmer: time had slowed to a nauseating crawl.
When Atticus raised his glasses Calpurnia murmured, “Sweet Jesus help him,” and put her hands to her cheeks.
Atticus pushed his glasses to his forehead; they slipped down, and he dropped them in the street. In the silence, I heard them crack. Atticus rubbed his eyes and chin; we saw him blink hard.
In front of the Radley gate, Tim Johnson had made up what was left of his mind. He had finally turned himself around, to pursue his original course up our street. He made two steps forward, then stopped and raised his head. We saw his body go rigid.
With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus’s hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder.
The rifle cracked. Tim Johnson leaped, flopped over and crumpled on the sidewalk in a brown-and-white heap. He didn’t know what hit him._
To Kill A Mockingbird suggests that there are many kinds of madness.
The Booky Man believes that some madness – racism, for instance – is so complex and so terrible that it can’t possibly be killed with just one shot … even if the shot is perfect.