On First Looking Into To Kill a Mockingbird
How sentimental and nostalgic is it?
Spurred on by a recent takedown in The New Yorker by the superb critic Thomas Mallon, I decided to finally complete my seventh-grade education and read To Kill a Mockingbird. How I had avoided it until now is anyone's guess: Harper Lee's lone novel, an autobiographical story of a young girl in Depression-beset Alabama, has become an inescapable fact of America's civic religion. In addition to being taught, by one reliable estimate, in three quarters of America's public schools, To Kill a Mockingbird sells about a million copies per year, for a total of 30 million to date, and is consistently ranked in reader surveys as the most influential book in Americans' lives, after, of course, the Bible. To Kill a Mockingbird is a type of literature Americans are most comfortable abiding, because it makes them most abidingly comfortable with themselves, a point Mallon takes to be fatal to its artistic ambitions, such as they are. The novel, Mallon claims, is "moral Ritalin," and its hero, the improbably decent country lawyer Atticus Finch, a "plaster saint." The persistent problem To Kill a Mockingbird has had for serious critics—aside from the obligatory Chelsea House edition introduced by Harold Bloom, it has attracted almost none—is the inverse of its success with the average consumer. As Flannery O'Connor once noted acidly, "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are buying a children's book."
Other wild-child staples, like Catcher in the Rye or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have inspired shelves of highbrow sponsorship. Why hasn't To Kill a Mockingbird? To begin with, the voices of Huck and Holden contain within them intimations of the depths of adult unease that are perceptible even to the youngest reader; and so these books mature as we mature and accompany us through all of life. To Kill a Mockingbird has the opposite effect: With each re-reading, it comfortingly reaffirms the priority of a child's point of view. To Kill a Mockingbird covers roughly three years in the life of its narrator, a 6-to-9-year-old girl named Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed "Scout," and no one will suffer this book long who does not take a liking to Scout. She is a character famously made in the image of her author, but more important, in the moral self-image of average Americans: She is the clever child, whose cleverness nonetheless never interferes with her innocence, and whose innocence is finally a near-flawless arbiter of right and wrong.
Even in the face of its astonishing success—To Kill a Mockingbird nested, Da Vinci Code-style, atop the best-seller lists and won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize—some contemporary reviewers remained frankly skeptical of Lee's craft. Her story is, as Phoebe Adams pointed out in the Atlantic at the time, "completely impossible, being told in the first person by a 6-year-old girl with the prose style of well-educated adult." Lee had started To Kill a Mockingbird in the late '50s as a series of short stories, then labored for years, with the help of an editor at Lippincott, to make it a unified novel; but, for better or worse, it has never fully overcome its episodic tendencies. Lee's narration remains a patchwork, mixing an adult's and a child's perspective according to no logic other than the immediate exigencies of the plot.
The confusion over whether this is a children's or an adult's book; the confusion over whether Scout is a child or an adult; to this we can add a third confusion, over what decade lays proper claim to To Kill a Mockingbird. In his new biography of the notoriously reclusive Lee, the first such serious attempt, author Charles J. Shields argues that To Kill a Mockingbird belongs with the books that came to define the counterculture: "Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Portnoy's Complaint, On the Road, The Bell Jar, Soul on Ice, and The Feminine Mystique—books that seized the imagination of the post-World War II generation." But so saturated is To Kill a Mockingbird in nostalgia for the 1930s, when a lawyer might still be paid in livestock, it's easy to forget this is a book of the '60s, and that between its publication and the release of the Academy Award-winning adaptation two years later, the descent of the first Freedom Riders into the deep south had inspired fire bombings and mob violence. In this context, what to make of a book that so solemnly eulogizes "the shadow of a beginning" of a change in racial mores? The strongest criticism Mallon might have leveled, but doesn't, is that Atticus' preposterously unblinking courtesy served to counsel gradualism and procedural nicety, even as the Civil Rights movement had started demanding something more.
What removes a book more thoroughly from the spirit of the '60s than a hyper-idealized parent? Atticus Finch belongs nowhere near Alexander Portnoy or Randle McMurphy: There is not an ounce of sex or boomer antiheroism in him. Instead, Atticus, a lawyer called upon to defend an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman, is a cartoonlike vessel of stoical wisdom. (In Mallon's wonderful phrase, Atticus "has a way of making forbearance itself insufferable.") He is the Sermon on the Mount, the Kantian moral law, and the Golden Rule, all rolled into one parched apothegm: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view." While I personally think there is more drollery to Atticus than Mallon gives him credit for, even my eyes rolled skullward when Atticus says to his son Jem of the book's arch-villain,
"Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell's shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that's something I'll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I'd rather it be me than that houseful of children out there."
In short, what serious criticism dislikes about To Kill a Mockingbird is what lay-readers find most narcotic about it: its nostalgia for childhood, or the simplicity of a life unpoisoned by puberty or the '60s. All the standard literary preoccupations of an increasingly neurosis-riven time have been fully banished from To Kill a Mockingbird. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that, unlike other populist favorites, like Gone With the Wind or The Fountainhead, To Kill a Mockingbird possesses genuine literary virtues; and to compare Scout to, say, Ayn Rand's ramrod Nietzscheans would count as a small crime. Her voice may be uneven, but it is almost always fetching, often vivid, and the small-town manners it captures are keenly observed. "An oppressive odor met us when we crossed the threshold," Scout at one point notes, entering the home of an aged neighbor, "an odor I had met many times in rain-rotted gray houses where there are coal-lamps, water dippers, and unbleached domestic sheets."
To defend To Kill a Mockingbird, which I will here admit I immensely enjoyed, I would begin by pairing it, not with Uncle Tom's Cabin, the book most frequently mistaken for its first cousin, but with Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Each is afflicted with its own version, one white, one black, of the maudlin insanity that grips American artists when they confront the issue of race. The two Lees: Each told their audience exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. Harper counseled whites to be forbearing when they might better have exploded; Spike encouraged blacks to explode, at just the moment the gains they hadmade into the middle class were consolidating. Nonetheless, both produced, almost in spite of themselves, works of transcendent American genius, garish murals streaked through with subtleties that, upon inspection, appear wholly unbidden. When Buggin' Out's new Air Jordans get smudged by Clifton, a yuppie interloper who has bought a brownstone in Bed-Stuy, Buggin' Out goes ballistic. "Who told you to step on my sneakers? Who told you to walk on my side of the block? Who told you to be in my neighborhood?" To which Clifton replies, "I bought a brownstone on this block." When Scout and Jem accompany their nurse Calpurnia to her Negro church for the first time, an imposing woman named Lulu approaches them:
"I wants to know why you bringin' white chillun to nigger church."
"They's my comp'ny," said Calpurnia. Again I thought her voice strange: she was talking like the rest of them.
"Yeah, an' I reckon you's comp'ny at the Finch house durin' the week."
The moment most white readers recall from To Kill a Mockingbird is the one that likely swelled them with the stiffest inrush of vicarious nobility. Having failed in his defense of Tom Robinson, Atticus exits the courtroom. "I looked around," Scout tells us. "They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes's voice was as distant as Judge Taylor's: 'Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'.'" I'm no different, in getting verklempt and promising against all hope to be a better person, when I read this passage. But the moral import of To Kill a Mockingbird, I think, comes from someplace considerably more complex. Toward the end of the book, Aunt Alexandra, Atticus' sister, explains to Scout why she shouldn't play with a boy named Walter Cunningham. "The thing is," her Aunt tells her, "you could scrub Walter Cunningham till he shines, you can put him in shoes and a new suit, but he'll never be like [your brother]. Besides, there's a drinking streak in his family a mile wide. Finch women aren't interested in that sort of people." When Scout refuses to desist, her aunt finally makes herself plain. "Because—he—is—trash, that's why you can't play with him."
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.