To Kill A Mockingbird

They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

Harper Lee, from To Kill a Mockingbird


Harper Lee was born on this day, April 28th in 1926.  In 1993 the reclusive writer emerged, Boo Radley-like, requesting that Mockingbird be spared introduction. She wrote “Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity. The only good thing about Introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose to come. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”

I agree. That’s also why I avoid movie trailers that now are so long and spoiler-laden they invariably ruin the experience.

In Mockingbird’s case however, the real threat is not an Introduction but rather the ubiquitous familiarity of both book and movie (a film rarity that actually does the book justice). Almost everyone has seen the movie, and the book syncs so closely it’s impossible to read without hearing Kim Stanley read it to you. Mrs. Stanley was the narrator of the movie and of course, the adult voice of Scout, from whose perspective the story is told.

Thankfully, Mockingbird not only endures, but improves along with the reader’s maturity. It can certainly be appreciated by the high school class upon which it is eternally imposed, but bring along some world weary wisdom, and the pages come alive. In a world of superlatives, it rightly was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by the Library Journal.

I read Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” simultaneously as comparative literature for contrasting perspective, and it was instructive. As Mockingbird is told through the voice of a grown white woman recalling her childhood experience in the segregated south, this story is likewise told by a grown black woman doing the same. Each story is about a child’s examination of prejudice, but Scout in Mockingbird is looking from the outside in while Angelou is deep inside, trying to make sense of the white world – almost as if from Plato’s cave, interpreting shadows.

Their similarities and learnings are as poignant as their differences.

Angelou writes

“What sets one Southern town apart from another, or from a Northern town or hamlet, or city high-rise? The answer must be the experience shared between the unknowing majority (it) and the knowing minority (you). All of childhood’s unanswered questions must finally be passed back to the town and answered there. Heroes and bogey men, values and dislikes, are first encountered and labeled in that early environment. In later years they change faces, places and maybe races, tactics, intensities and goals, but beneath those penetrable masks they wear forever the stocking-capped faces of childhood.”

It’s all a world of double standards, and they are a fearful thing. They allow you to hold diametrically aligned but contrasting views in the cradle of your mind with no moral angst whatsoever. It takes children a while to get the hang of it, but not long. The problem, of course, is that we all are guilty and remedy requires a hard lonesome fight against the resolute crowd.

Revisionist history is as old as mankind and truth has always been canonized by the victors. In time, facts matter less and less until all that remains is the operationalized outcome. This plays even harder when rationalization smooths over moral inconveniences. Solidarity helps, and societies conspire to protect their mores, but miraculously the outliers manage to find their lonely voice. Folks like Atticus raise children who learn by their courageous example and the few take up the torch to move us inelegantly along.

Sometimes, thank God, they even write books.

D I G  D E E P E R


Harper Lee

born April 28, 1926, Monroeville, Alabama, U.S.) American writer nationally acclaimed for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

Harper Lee is the daughter of Amasa Coleman Lee, a lawyer who was by all accounts apparently rather like the hero-father of her novel in his sound citizenship and warmheartedness. The plot of To Kill a Mockingbird is based in part on his unsuccessful youthful defense of two African American men convicted of murder.

Lee studied law at the University of Alabama (spending a summer as an exchange student at Oxford) but left for New York City without earning a degree. In New York she worked as an airline reservationist but soon received financial aid from friends that allowed her to write full-time. With the help of an editor, she transformed a series of short stories into To Kill a Mockingbird.

The novel is told predominately from the perspective of a young girl, Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch (who ages from six to nine years old during the course of the novel), the daughter of white lawyer Atticus Finch, and occasionally from the retrospective adult voice of Jean Louise. Scout and her brother, Jem, learn the principles of racial justice and open-mindedness from their father, whose just and compassionate acts include an unpopular defense of a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl. They also develop the courage and the strength to follow their convictions in their acquaintance and eventual friendship with a recluse, “Boo” Radley, who has been demonized by the community. To Kill a Mockingbird received a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. Criticism of its tendency to sermonize has been matched by praise of its insight and stylistic effectiveness. It became a memorable film in 1962 and was filmed again in 1997.

One character from the novel, Charles Baker (“Dill”) Harris, is based on Lee’s childhood friend and next door neighbour in Monroeville, Alabama, Truman Capote. When Capote traveled to Kansas in 1959 to cover the murders of the Clutter family for The New Yorker, Lee accompanied him as what he called his “assistant researchist.” She spent months with Capote interviewing townspeople, writing voluminous notes, sharing impressions, and later returning to Kansas for the trial of the accused—contributions Capote would later use in the composition of In Cold Blood. After the phenomenal success that followed the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, some suspected that Capote was the actual author of Lee’s work, a rumour put to rest when in 2006 a 1959 letter from Capote to his aunt was found, stating that he had read and liked the draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that Lee had shown him but making no mention of any role in writing it.

After a few years in New York, Lee divided her time between that city and her hometown, eventually settling back in Monroeville, Alabama. She also wrote a few short essays, including Romance and High Adventure (1983), devoted to Alabama history. Go Set a Watchman, written before To Kill a Mockingbird but essentially a sequel featuring Scout as a grown woman who returns to her childhood home in Alabama to visit her father, was released in 2015.

Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.

Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

 

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life