Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Reading and lounging and watching.
June 9 2006 4:18 PM

On First Looking Into To Kill a Mockingbird

How sentimental and nostalgic is it?

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Who commonly remembers that Atticus himself is capable of hurling, not only an epithet, but precisely this epithet? In his one moment of half-passion, Atticus turns to his children and tells them, "As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash." To Kill a Mockingbird is a nostalgic evocation of Southern manners that, in the character of Atticus Finch, is teaching us to reject those Southern manners. They contain within them a fidelity to a principle of familial alikeness that Lee, in the end, as measured by the considerable difference between Aunt Alexandra's and Atticus' definition of the word "trash," would like us to find disgusting. To call this crude, quietist, or sentimental is an injustice, it seems to me.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.