“‘…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'” (105).
I have always loved To Kill A Mockingbird. It is a gentle and compassionate novel confronting a difficult subject matter -the issue of racism in America. As I re-read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the first time in my adult life, the national press was once again afire with the issue of racism. Several widely publicized incidents of police violence against black Americans spawned widespread protests, the scale of which was unparalleled since the 1960s. This has been a time of reflection for a great many people. Similarly, To Kill A Mockingbird was published on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement in 1960: it was published not long after the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts (1955-1956), among other instances of civil disobedience. Like other great books of the Western tradition, such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia or Plato’s Apology of Socrates, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird uses a courtroom drama to explore the question of justice, in particular the injustice of racism in America.
To Kill A Mockingbird is a novel told in two parts. Part I patiently sets the scene. While reading, I imagined hearing the story from the novel’s protagonist, Scout. I pictured her reminiscing about the old days while gently rocking back and forth on her Alabama porch, perhaps sipping a mint julep. Harper Lee’s beautiful cadence invites us into the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression years of the early ’30s. It is a dusty, rural town in Southern Alabama based on Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The first half of the book offers a series of vignettes spanning several years in the life of six-year old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. She amusingly offers reflections on misadventures with her brother, Jeremy “Jem” (based on Harper Lee’s older brother, Edwin) and family friend, Dill, who visits Maycomb during the summers (the character Dill is loosely based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote).
The three children: Scout, Jem, and Dill play games in the neighborhood, especially at the end of the street where the Radley house stands mostly dilapidated and boarded up. The Radley’s son, colloquially called “Boo Radley” lives inside the house in isolation from the world. The children find him fascinating and mysterious. One night, the children narrowly escape from the Radley home in a dangerous effort to catch a glimpse of Boo Radley, and in another case the children find toys and bubblegum hidden in the knot of a tree outside the Radley house. Along the way, we meet the neighborhood ladies: Miss Maudie, Miss Stephanie Crawford, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose -an aging widow who has a morphine addiction, but her addiction is unwittingly overcome shortly before her death by Jem and Scout. In another vignette, the children go with their black housemaid, Calpurnia, to her church and learn about the differences between white and black people in Alabama. Dill and Scout promise to get married one day, while Jem rapidly matures, hoping to earn the respect of their father, Atticus.
As the novel progresses we become aware of a controversy that has struck Maycomb. The Ewells, a poor white family led by drunken patriarch, Bob Ewell, accuse a black man named Tom Robinson of raping their daughter, Mayella Ewell. The controversy is explicitly racial in nature. The local magistrate, Judge Taylor, appoints Atticus Finch to defend Tom Robinson in the criminal case -an indication of the judge’s sympathy for the defendant. Many in town begin to publicly scorn Atticus and his children for defending a black man. At one point a lynch mob visits Tom Robinson’s prison to kill him, but they are stopped when Jem and Scout intervene. The innocence of children has a pacifying effect on people. It saves Tom Robinson (and also Atticus) from a potentially violent scenario.
“Scout… every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change” (76).
Part II of To Kill A Mockingbird focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson. During the course of the trial, which takes place on a hot summer day, the children sit in the upper balcony with the black citizens, and they watch Atticus cross-examine the witnesses. They are impressed with their father’s demeanor and temperament. Atticus is a good man who always does the right thing. Despite no evidence to convict Tom Robinson, and in fact evidence to the contrary (namely Tom Robinson’s defective left arm), nevertheless the jury unanimously finds him guilty. The trial ends in tragedy -a gross miscarriage of justice.
In the end, Bob Ewell vows vengeance on Atticus. He dramatically attacks Scout and Jem in a particularly terrifying scene on Halloween night. During the course of their tussle, an unknown assailant comes to their rescue. Bob Ewell winds up dead with a knife stuck in him, and Jem is carried away with a broken arm. We soon discover the anonymous man to be Arthur “Boo” Radley, a pale-faced, child-like man who has saved the children. It was he who left those gifts for the children in a tree-hole many years ago. At the Finch house, a small crowd gathers at Jem’s bedside until Boo Radley gently whispers to Scout to walk him home. When they get back to his home he quickly enters, shuts the door, and Scout never sees him again. She reflects on the life of Boo Radley in contrast to the life of the children playing outside in her neighborhood. She remembers the words Atticus once said:
“…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (279).
The serious subjects of racism, rape, and injustice in To Kill A Mockingbird are contrasted with the light-hearted and innocent perspectives of children. All three children, Scout, Jem, and Dill, are not fully aware of the gravity of the situation unfolding around them. The novel asks us to look beyond our prejudices and recall our own childhood, and in doing so, to seek out the better angels of our nature. The idea of innocence is also shown in the character of Arthur “Boo” Radley, who is a child-like recluse. At first, he is frightening and mysterious, but by the end of the story he is a hero.
The notion of childlike innocence is further alluded to in the novel’s title. Mockingbirds are referenced perhaps only once or twice in the novel, but they are shown to be respected creatures because they are harmless. They merely offer songs for other people to enjoy. Atticus says it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, in other words, it is a sin to destroy innocence in the world:
“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'” (90).
The dedication at the outset of the novel reads to “Mr. Lee and Alice in consideration of Love & Affection” and an epigraph from English essayist and poet, Charles Lamb, is also featured: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”
To Kill A Mockingbird Controversies
As with many other Pulitzer-Prize winning novels, like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (read my reflections on the novel here) or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind (read my reflections on the novel here), Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was ensconced in controversy. It was criticized by many as immoral or obscene for its colorful use of racial epithets and its controversial content (namely dealing with the heavy issues of rape and racism). Many schools boards, particularly in the American South, attempted to ban the book -most notoriously in Hanover County, VA, until public outcry reversed the decision. Harper Lee, herself, wrote a letter to the school board expressing disappointment at their decision (she questioned whether or not any of the board members could, in fact, read). Over the years since its publication there have been numerous attempts to ban the book from American libraries. In 2016, To Kill A Mockingbird, along with Huckleberry Finn, was removed from a school library in Virginia, and in 2017 a school board in Mississippi removed To Kill A Mockingbird from its longstanding position in the elementary school’s curriculum. Thankfully, free speech and free inquiry advocates continue to push back against censorship at American schools and libraries. Recently, To Kill A Mockingbird won PBS’s “Great American Read” for favorite American novel by the general public.
For the Pulitzer Prize decision in 1961 there were two members of the Fiction Jury: John Barkham, a South African by birth who became an American book reviewer at publications including TIME, The New York Times Book Review, the New York Post and others. John Barkham served on many Pulitzer juries in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, and Biography over a period of approximately 20 years. The other Fiction Juror in 1961 was Irita Van Doren, a former editor of The Nation and a book reviewer at the New York Herald Tribune Books. She was formerly married to Carl van Doren, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Ben Franklin in 1939. In her later years she ran in many literary circles while developing a deep fascination with Southern literature. She led a storied life that included a secret romantic affair with Wendell Willkie, Republican presidential nominee in 1940.
About Harper Lee
Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) published only two novels during her lifetime: To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) and Go Set A Watchman (2015). She selected “Harper Lee” as her nom de plume because she was afraid of being misidentified as “Nellie.”
She was born in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children. Growing up, she became close friends with Truman Capote (he was actually the basis for the character “Dill” in To Kill A Mockingbird, and in return Truman Capote based a character in his first novel on Harper Lee). She studied law at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, but much to her father’s chagrin, she dropped out one semester before graduating. Harper Lee was generally considered the bohemian of the family while her older sister, Alice, pursued a legal career.
In 1949, Harper Lee moved to New York City to become a writer while working various odd-jobs, such as an airline reservation agent or a bookstore clerk. In her spare time she wrote stories. She moved into a townhouse at 50th East Street and her friends offered a years worth of wages to free up her time to write. She lived near her old friend Truman Capote, and traveled with him to Kansas while researching the story of a small town murder that eventually turned into his magnum opus, In Cold Blood. Eventually, Harper Lee grew apart from Truman Capote as his lifestyle became more flamboyant and hers drew further inward. By 1957, Harper Lee submitted a manuscript for publication entitled Go Set A Watchman, but it was not entirely ready so she re-worked it for several years and eventually retitled it To Kill A Mockingbird. It was a long and grueling process of editing and re-editing (at one point a tearful Lee apparently tossed her manuscript out a second story window into the snow before her editor phoned her up and calmly reassured her of the process). Harper Lee’s editor was Therese “Tay” von Hohoff of the publishing house, J. B. Lippincott (later acquired by HarperCollins).
When To Kill A Mockingbird was finally published it was an extraordinary success. Lee’s celebrity rapidly grew out of control and she worked hard to protect her anonymity. Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, became her attorney. They lived together, both unmarried, and filed for an unlisted telephone number to prevent the growing requests for interviews (Harper Lee denied nearly every interview). She preferred to live a private life. However, it is not fair to call her a recluse. Lee merely enjoyed her quiet and frugal existence far away from the spotlight. She was content to view herself as the Jane Austen of the American South, as well as a documentarian of the American small town -a vanishing way of life in contemporary society.
When Universal Pictures purchased the movie rights to her novel, Harper Lee helped with the script and casting for the film. During the process she grew particularly close with Gregory Peck, whose granddaughter was later named in honor of Harper Lee. The film was released in 1962 to great acclaim.
Harper Lee lived a lengthy and mostly anonymous life, all while collecting numerous awards over the decades for To Kill A Mockingbird, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts, and numerous literary and collegiate merits. She spent a few months every year in New York, but most of her life was happily spent in Monroeville. She lived with her sister, Alice, and together they made weekly trips to David’s Catfish Cabin for seafood. Harper Lee had many friends and was apparently a delightfully funny person.
A sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird was controversially published in 2015 entitled Go Set a Watchman. Apparently the novel tells the story of Scout twenty years later as she returns to Maycomb from New York only to find Atticus an older man who has grown more bigoted and disappointing (he expresses certain sympathies for the Ku Klux Klan). Much of the novel was an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird that was mysteriously discovered by publishers. Upon its publication there was a media firestorm. HarperCollins was criticized for allegedly taking advantage of Harper Lee, an 89 year-old woman with impaired eyesight and hearing loss. The decision to publish went against her many decades of resistance to publish anything else. To make matters worse, Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, who was her sole caregiver and attorney, died shortly before HarperCollins was granted permission to publish the book.
Harper Lee died in her sleep on February 19, 2016 in Monroeville, Alabama at age 89. She never married and she never had any children.
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. Warner Books, December, 1982.