#10: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee

“Atticus–” Aunt Alexandra’s eyes were anxious. “You are the last person I thought would turn bitter over this.”
“I’m not bitter, just tired. I’m going to bed.”
“Atticus–” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only children weep.”


One of the challenges of writing little pieces about these books is that in many cases it’s hard to come up with anything halfway fresh.  There’s a little obscurity here and there, titles that may have slipped under even an avid reader’s radar (say, Dog Soldiers and Ubik), but To Kill a Mockingbird? What is left to say at this point, etc.

As a matter of fact, don’t we all agree that TKAM  is an unimpeachable American classic*, dexterously able to speak both to children and to adults? Imparting values that younger readers need to hear and older ones need to be reminded of? When I told people TKAM was my next book on the list, they practically fell to their knees in response.  People don’t simply like this novel; they’ve made a soul-level connection with it.

As a further matter of fact, Harper Lee’s story has reached a certain critical status where any attempts to address its shortcomings (of which there are several) often come off as gratuitously provocative or complete buzzkills (in the latter, Malcolm Gladwell hilariously writes that the novel “tells us about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism,” a phrase which makes you understand why half the country hates liberals.)

Who cares if the story is a bit heavy-handed and reductive? You’d have to be a piece of cardboard not to be swept away by its urgent plea for equality and by its precocious narrator, Scout.

So rather than choose between outright gushing or crankily bullet-pointing my hang-ups, I’ll examine for a bit why this novel cuts so deep for so many people. No other book on this list inspires such unabashed reverence, and I think the answer goes beyond simply crediting it to the overall message.**

I think the primary reason for TKAM‘s enduring popularity is that it is a full-fledged Important Book, validated as such by all our teachers and the literary establishment, that offers none of the usual impediments we associate with such books. Your average high school student, led to believe that Serious Literature is a chore and hopelessly incapable of speaking to real-world problems, can dip into this novel without fear of intimidation or alienation. It tells a story filled with major social issues in a deceptively simple way, with a first-person narration that feels warm and inviting.***

It’s tempting to reduce this book basically to two events: the trial of Tom Robinson, and the emergence of Boo Radley after existing only in the imaginations of Jem, Scout, and Dill. Those are certainly the two parts of the book that lingered in my memory; on this re-read, I was genuinely surprised how little the first section of the book is concerned with them. Lee spends the first hundred pages putting you in Maycomb, Alabama, during the hot summer with Scout and her brother, and that instant blast of nostalgia — even as socially there’s very little to be nostalgic about — eases you into the much weightier second section.

An author makes countless decisions when writing a book, but perhaps the most important one Lee made was eschewing omniscience in favor of Scout herself, whose narration seems to switch from her younger self talking to us contemporaneously to a much older Jean Louise reflecting back with more maturity sometime in the future, with no announcements in the text to signal the change.

That seeming contradiction was not an accident, but the product of ceaseless trial and error: “[Lee] rewrote the novel three times,” Charles Shields writes in his biography Mockingbird. “The original draft was in the third person, then she changed to first person and later rewrote the final draft, which blended the two narrators, Janus-like, looking forward and back at the same time” (128).

The hybrid voice confounded many critics, one of whom called it “frankly and completely impossible.” But it’s still a better choice than the more reportorial, third-person approach would have been. The novel relies on that tension between a naive Scout who can unwittingly break up a Klan rally with her innocent charm, and the older Jean Louise who has the proper perspective on the large social issues she’s describing.

As Shields writes, “In a cinematic sense, the narration provided by the adult Jean Louise is like a voice-over,” whereas when the young Scout describes something, “drama replaces exposition.” It’s why Atticus, the father we all wish we had, can speak only in parables and you buy it: It’s Jean Louise’s idealized recollection of what Atticus told her, and naturally she’d be wearing rose-colored glasses as she tells us. A third-person narration would have made obvious the chief knock against this novel, that it glosses over the worst of U.S. race relations in the 1930s. Scout is not a sociologist; she can only address a macro social issue by focusing on the micro elements of her life.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel I appreciate more than love. I understand but do not share the disdain held by folks like Malcolm Gladwell toward it. They take the book to task for its oversimplification of race relations and lack of moral ambiguity. Sure enough, there are other books on the Time list that will wrestle with these questions with far greater complexity.

But while their criticisms are perfectly valid, they don’t get that those same criticisms are the reason the public loves it. Consider the runaway success of a contemporary novel that is probably TKAM‘s closest analog, The Help. Another critic-proof book that doesn’t ask much of you the reader but also doesn’t work against you, inviting you in and hitting all the right emotional notes.

That might sound like damning the novel with faint praise, but I admire the novel for what it does. You don’t set out to write a cultural touchstone, you just write the best way you know how to. You can go through the book line by line extracting Zen koans from every page, but that might not be the ideal way to approach it; Lee said that she wanted “to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world,” (Shields 117) and perhaps this book is best enjoyed on that level.


*Interesting fact: To Kill a Mockingbird is included on pretty much every Best-Of or Most Important list you can find, with one exception: The Modern Library’s 20th-century list. The reader’s poll placed it 5th, but the editorial board declined to include it at all. Make of that what you will.

**I’m working under the assumption that everyone knows the basic plot and moral takeaways from this novel, so I won’t spend any time here going over them. Just know: racism is bad.

***You often hear that people re-read this book many times through their lives, and I’m thinking Scout/Jean Louise’s narration is one of the big reasons why. She feels like a friend you can come back to every few years, a friend who ages right along with you.

Major source for this piece:
Shields, Charles J.  Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2006.

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