If you're going to write only one book . . .
‘ To Kill a Mockingbird’ is as bright and fresh as it was when it was published, 50 years ago next week. As its author, Harper Lee, knows, that’s in part because people don’t change: prejudices still linger, old hatreds still fester and no grown-up ever sees as clearly as a child
IT’S A VOICE we know so well, a voice that has changed not a quaver since we first heard it as children. On returning to it as adults, battered by life yet still capable of responding to a sense of discovery, the realisation endures that To Kill a Mockingbirdis a novel with something important to say. Its author, Harper Lee, practical and forthright, has never lost sight of that either. When asked to write a foreword to a new edition, she was wary, and wrote: “Mockingbird still says what it has to say . . .”
She is right: her one and only work remains as fresh as the first time we encountered it, as bright and as full of purpose as when it was first published, on July 11th, 1960, 50 years ago next week. The world she was writing about, Maycomb, “a tired old town” in Alabama, where rain turned the streets to “red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square”, may have changed, but people haven’t. Prejudices linger, old hatreds fester and no grown-up ever sees as clearly as a child.
Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, tells the story. By way of introduction she provides a brief family history. She has an older brother, Jem, who once suffered a serious injury to his arm. Her mother died when Scout was two years old, “so I never felt her absence”, she says.
Scout is not sentimental; nor is she interested in sympathy. But in Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem have a parent of rare value, a good man with an unwavering sense of justice. He is also one of the most revered characters in US fiction and about the closest thing to a genuine if unlikely hero: he is a lawyer. Atticus is unique; this quiet, detached widower doesn’t crack jokes, is not eccentric, moves slowly and seems tired most of the time, but when he has to act quickly he can. It is Atticus who shoots the rabid dog. He is “Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him . . . Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town”. He is also burdened by the difficulties facing anyone determined to abide by a code of fairness for all, regardless of colour, in what is a segregated, unforgiving community.
Scout is interested in life as it is lived outside her own experience. This is what makes her so much more interesting than the self-absorbed Holden Caulfield, and what makes To Kill a Mockingbird superior to a cult book from a slightly earlier generation, The Catcher in the Rye(1951). JD Salinger’s manifesto of rebellion now seems increasingly dated when compared with Lee’s engaging and subversive moral polemic. Scout is intrigued by others, interested to the point of being nosy. When she reluctantly begins school she immediately feels obliged to assist the young teacher, Miss Caroline, by providing information about the financial situation of young Walter Cunningham, who could never hope to repay the lunch money the teacher is offering him.
Scout’s interventions irritate the teacher; that first day at school could have gone better. But Scout is not stupid; her lively intelligence guides her to a rare understanding of life and people. Near the close of the novel, when attending her aunt’s women’s society tea party, Scout is wearing a dress and has figured out adult behaviour to such an extent that when she is asked what she wants to be when she grows up, her reply is prompt and politic: “a young lady”. This from the definitive tomboy, who has asserted herself in the cloistered enclave of a 1930s small town in the Deep South by outfighting and outsassing all comers. Four years younger than Jem, Scout reacts but she also observes. Her candour shapes her personality.
The brother and sister are pals, realists, yet also imaginative and still inhabiting the wonderland of childhood. They are fascinated by the shadowy presence of Boo Radley, the mysterious, reclusive grown son of a cantankerous neighbour. Boo has a dark history of madness and violence. His father keeps him prisoner in the dark and gloomy house known as the Radley place, where “Jem reckoned that Mr Radley kept him chained to the bed most of the time”. A sighting of Boo becomes both a thrilling game and a symbolic quest. Into this brother-and-sister alliance steps the wonderful Dill, who introduces himself with aplomb: “I’m Charles Baker Harris. I can read.” Scout’s reply is characteristically direct. “So what?” Dill, making the best of an unhappy home life – and one of Lee’s great creations, modelled on her friend Truman Capote – is tenacious. “I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin’ I can do it.”
Small for his age, he is gracious when Jem guesses him to be only four and a half. Dill is “goin’ on seven” and announces with the courage he shows throughout, “I’m little but I’m old.” Scout has a flair for saying the wrong thing that, in fact, is invariably the right thing, although few of the adults around her want to hear it. She has inherited the instinctive sense of justice her father has always lived by. He has given them an unusual level of freedom and, above all, allows them think for themselves. When he does bow “to the inevitable” and buys them air guns, he cautions them, saying that they can “shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”. But Scout is not a paragon: having had to play as an equal with boys, she believes that most playground disputes can be settled by a punch in the face. Her narrative is comic, precocious and honest. It is this blunt honesty that frequently places her at odds with adults such as her aunt, who find the truth an uncomfortable proposition.
Lee brings a wealth of talents to the story; humour, characterisation, an instinctive feel for story and an insider’s grasp of a small town’s social dynamics. Above all, Lee, who was born in 1926 in Munroeville, Alabama, and grew up next door to Capote, is aware of the rhythms of southern speech as natural to her as breathing.
Scout is true to that voice. She could have seemed too intelligent, had Lee not skilfully balanced vivid memory with the perception of hindsight, and in doing so conveys a sense of childhood remembered. It is a sympathetic, sensitive narrative, never sentimental and not even particularly nostalgic. Atticus, Miss Maudie, the sheriff Mr Tate and Judge Taylor are all strongly drawn without appearing saintly.
Through Scout’s reportage and her presentation of various incidents, the community emerges. To read Lee’s novel and listen to Scout’s voice is to walk the streets of Maycomb, to join the crowd packing into the hot courthouse for the trial that is the heart of the story.
The Finch children experience anger and eventually fear when targeted by local resentment as it becomes known that Atticus is to defend Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell. Scout says it came to her that Ewell “must have been the loneliest person in the world. She was even lonelier than Boo Radley, who had not been out of the house in twenty-five years”. It is obvious that Ewell was not raped by Robinson. Her father, known locally as a vicious thug, is the culprit. He has a history of beating his daughter, and he later sets out to settle his score with Atticus by stalking Jem and Scout, a pursuit that culminates in an attack.
Lee makes no attempt to conceal the polemical intent. In the trial, which proves so distressing to the sensitive Dill, Atticus (played so well by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie version) articulates the driving force of the narrative as he concludes his defence of Tom Robinson by stressing to the jury in his calm, reasonable way: “You know the truth, and the truth is this: some negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women – black and white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.” Lee had no intention of writing a fairy tale, and the abiding stroke of genius is that Atticus does not win the case, while Tom is shot dead while trying to escape.
Scout ponders her teacher’s avowed hatred of Hitler and his treatment of the Jews, considering that she had heard the same lady, Miss Gates, making racist remarks on her way out of the courthouse after Tom Robinson’s trial. Scout mentions to Jem that she had overheard the teacher. “She was goin’ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her – she was talkin’ with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home -?”.
After many years living in New York, Harper Lee returned to Munroeville, where she still lives. She stands apart from major stylists such as Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty. Lee is famous for her only book, a Pulitzer-winning novel that pre-empted Toni Morrison’s achievement, 28 years later, with another Pulitzer winner, Beloved. It was Lee who accompanied Truman Capote to Kansas while he was researching the crime that inspired In Cold Blood(1966).
Independence Day dawns tomorrow. It’s worth remembering that several years before the civil-rights movement was to consolidate its protest, Harper Lee exposed the rhetoric of righteousness and the concept of independence in practice through the eyes of a child.