The OF Blog: Today is the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Today is the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

July 11, 1960.  The decades-long struggle for African-American civil rights was beginning to gain national attention.  From February to May of that year, there were sit-ins at restaurants in Nashville, Tennessee and Greensboro, North Carolina.  There were beginning to be the first rumblings that following Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that the US government might consider constitutional amendments to ban such practices as the poll tax and literacy tests before African-Americans could vote in several states.  "Separate but equal," established in 1896 with Plessy vs. Ferguson, was beginning to crumble when a young female Alabama writer, Harper Lee, released her first and so far only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

It is hard to believe that fifty years have passed since this book was sold.  Over 30 million copies have been sold worldwide, and the movie version is widely considered as being one of the best book-to-film adaptations that have ever been done.  Almost exactly twenty years ago, I had to read this book as part of my Honors English summer reading list.  I can barely remember any of the other books, but this one has stayed vividly in my memory for over half of my lifetime.  As a native Southerner, I thought I would discuss just what it was about this book that has moved me so.

Several readers, perhaps the majority of whom were born and raised outside the South, view this book as being a powerful condemnation of racism.  It is certainly that and the race-tinged trial of the innocent Tom Robinson definitely lies in the central core of this story.  But there are other elements about this book that I fear may have been glossed over somewhat in the discussions, elements that are close kin to the central racism theme.

Lee is a superb stylist.  By showing three summers (and other seasons) of the lives of young Jem and Scout Finch (based strongly on Lee's own family) and the wandering Dill Harris (Lee's childhood friend, the author Truman Capote was the model for Dill), Lee speaks not exclusively about the insidious racism that was (is?) prevalent in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s, but also about human relationships, our abilities to deceive ourselves into thinking that what we believe and do is correct,  and how hypocritical we can be as a society.  It is not a pleasant subject to read, particularly if one has grown up in a region where the remnants of this class and race-based hypocrisy remain, but it is a very powerful read, due in large part to Lee's abilities to use her three youthful protagonists, the near-saintly father figure of Atticus Finch, and other townspeople of the imaginary Maycomb, Alabama to underscore so many points about how humans (mis)treat and fear one another.

Whenever I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, I am always reminded of how complex the characters are.  It is easy to condemn several of the characters here for being misogynistic or racist, but Lee paints a much more complex portrait of characters such as Aunt Alexandria, Mrs. Dubose, Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, Walter Cunningham (the father), and other Maycomb adults.  As seen through the eyes of young Scout (who is between 6 and 9 during the course of the story, set in 1933-1935), we learn about how even the same religious faith can divide a community, how the appearance of good manners is at least as important, if not more so, than actual respect for those less "well-bred" in the community, how humor and laughter can be a balm, how the bravest battles can be fought by those who know they have no chance to whip the enemy, how being beholden to no one can lead to resistance, even if it's temporary, against one's upbringing in regards to race, and so forth.  Lee infuses her narrative with so many little, personal characteristics that it was no surprise to learn recently that so much of this tale, especially that of the lawyer father, is based on her own life.

But fact is not always as instructive as the fiction.  Here, through the complexities of human life and our blind eyes that are often turned toward our own brethren (as illustrated brilliantly in the scene with the Missionary Society after the Robinson trial), Lee reveals so much of the dark underbellies of so many towns, Southern or not, that considering it at length would akin to taking multiple blows to the stomach.  And this all culminates in the running subplot involving the reclusive Arthur "Boo" Radley, who, more than any other character in this fine novel, represents how innocence can be in a world where everyone is shooting at the mockingbirds that they fail to recognize.

Doubtless To Kill a Mockingbird will continue to be read and hopefully understood another fifty years from now, when Lee is long dead and hopefully some of the hypocrisies and mistreatment so endemic to our societies may have finally begun to wane.  It may be a vain hope, there might still be precocious children crying at the injustices of the world while the adults mostly hem and haw over how "relative" things are, but certainly works such as this will persevere and stand out as a beacon of light and decency against the darkness of hatred and contempt for fellow human beings.


Chad Hull said...

For me, that's the most compelling commentary I've read of yours. Though I don't think it's en vogue with most readers, I enjoy reading about a works strength where the person writing doesn't tell me what the books explicitly about. Most online reviewers stick with plot summaries which are a dime a dozen and defeat the purpose of reading the book.

I often wonder if the educational systems are making a mistake with books like this in high schools. I wasn't mature enough to read, or appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird when I was first made to. And though I'm far removed from today's high schoolers, I don't think they are either.

The subtleties that are inherent to the stories power--of which racism may be the least, as you mention--are harder to appreciate as readers are further removed from the events at inspired the narrative. I think a lot of the 'classics' suffer from similar contextual displacement. Furthermore, I'm not sure that growing older is all that is need to grasp better understanding.

To admit my own colossal ignorance, I had no idea Harper Lee was a woman; I learned something new today.

Dave Cesarano said...

I agree entirely with Mr. Hull regarding high school--this book was beyond most of my peers in Honors English, and although I got the major themes, the nuances and subtleties were lost on me. I wasn't experienced enough of a reader. That and, unfortunately, English high school courses usually boil everything down to a stark sterility where symbolism is rote, something you need to know for a test, and all of the emotional investment in a work is sucked out.

I've been meaning to return to this book for a long time. I'm not sure if I'll ever get to it--there are more books I want to read than hours in a lifetime. But I believe that, fifteen years later, I'll get much more out of this book than I did when I was a kid.

Tom said...

What an extraordinarily momentous occasion. Hopefully their will be a few retrospectives. I heard The Committee for Media and Newspaper Integrity might be doing something interesting.

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