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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Is it "perverseness," the "death drive," or something else?

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.

Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

It's up to us humans to re-humanize our world. An economy that prioritizes growth and profits over humanity has led to digital platforms that "strip the topsoil" of human behavior, whole industries, and the planet, giving less and less back. And only we can save us.

Think Again Podcasts
  • It's an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
  • Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you're creating— or do you want to make the world a place you don't have to insulate yourself from?
Keep reading Show less