Why Try to Kill Mockingbird?

In two days, To Kill A Mockingbird turns fifty. God bless this book.  For whatever reasons, we still need this books in our lives, on our syllabi; we still need its message. As the onslaught of articles supporting and—predictably—subverting Harper Lee’s place in American literary history arrives, why not can start the weekend by remembering exactly what we remember about the book, and consider that our memories may quickly eclipse even the most brilliant new criticism.

We remember Atticus Finch. We remember Boo Radley. We remember Scout. We remember the injustice of race relations at another time in American history; we remember how the book forced us to reflect on the injustice of race relations at that time. We remember the injustice of race relations now. We remember a feeling: America at a time in its history when what the phrase “a small town” meant was known to everyone, even those of us who had never lived in one.

We remember Harper Lee. She was revolutionary for writing a book like Mockingbird in its time. We might know, or recall, that it was Lee who accompanied Truman Capote on his initial trip to research In Cold Blood, on assignment from The New Yorker. Lee was as sophisticated as any other writer of her generation and yet she, uniquely—and still today—remained adamant in wanting to stay out of the public eye. She was not impressed.

Our children and our children’s children will read this book. Why does it arouse such strong feelings? Jesse Kornbluth’s excellent love letter to the novel, which included a clip of an as-yet-unfinished documentary about Harper Lee, stood on one side of the ring; Alan Barra, in his Wall Street Journal piece, on the other. Barra mocks the book for its absence of ambiguity, its “sugar-coating” of Alabama’s past, and its presentation of Finch as a hero. He lacks nuance and, Barra implies, intelligence. To write these things feels almost sacrilegious; is it possible that this is true?

The film version of To Kill a Mockingbird occupies a separate place in our cultural history. And yes, perhaps it’s possible that the imagery of the film—in particular, Gregory Peck’s Atticus—is what we recall more than anything literary or political in the novel. Even Malcolm Gladwell (Kornbluth reminds us) has taken intelligent, if controversial, issue with the book’s (lazy?) politics. These critics might have Lee removed from schools.

But perhaps that’s the controversial part, this question of where the book resonates for us, how we pass it on to the next generation. Isn’t the syllabus—the canon—beside the point? Many of those who feel most passionately about the book left their last classrooms long ago. Perhaps is it not in English class where this book lives but in our hearts and minds. Here we hold Atticus and Boo and Scout, alongside the idea of certain justice done in a familiar place, and done well. This is where we hold a uniquely American sense of ourselves in America and as Americans. This is not a place that necessarily cares for nuance, but it is a place that demands a hero.

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