TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD – Harper Lee
I was young when this book came out, and was older when the movie was released. That’s how I saw and remembered the book – Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a drama about law.
I’ve now read this book. Two passages are memorable and bear reproducing. The first is about the use of terms to denigrate a class or group of people. Atticus explains to Scout,
“…it’s just one of those terms that doesn’t mean anything …It’s hard to explain –
ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes
over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like
ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label someone…
“…it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just
shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you. (Lippincott, 1960, p. 117-118, Chapter 11)
The person who has been using the bad terms has troubles of her own. She is addicted to morphine and before she dies, she wants to end the craving – meet her maker straight. Atticus explains to Jem why he’s required to read to Mrs. Dubose. The old woman,
“was going to leave beholden to nothing and nobody…”
“She had her own views, about things, a lot different from mine, maybe…I wanted
you to see something about her – I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead
of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you
know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it
through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do…(page 120, 121
Of course, it is also an explanation why Atticus has taken on a very disagreeable, unpopular case he cannot win and which will only damage his career and standing in the community. He knows all that going in. It is not a matter of money. It is not a matter of a man making a reputation. It is simply doing the right thing at the time no matter the consequences.
[Coming upon the trial I was reminded of John Adams who was defense attorney in the 1770 trial for the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770). That representation was very unpopular, and I imagine Adams took a lot of grief especially because the defendants were acquitted.]
If that is all To Kill A Mockingbird was about (courage and using language), the author would have made her money in good conscious. But the author made the book thorough. Throughout are details of Southern society. Authors have done it before, Mark Twain and William Faulkner: Trial and reaction of the town’s people, negro church society; standing and reputation within the town; family relations and ties to the past; ties of the family’s past to the town; a widower raising two children on his own; the sister (aunt) coming to live with them. The aunt adds stability as well as protection as the son enters puberty and sometimes the girl should not wear overalls. When the aunt has an afternoon social and Scout attends, the reader can fear that Scout will forever be contaminated. Finally, the people most feared, denigrated and hated by the society, Negroes, are not dangerous. Whites themselves are the most dangerous to one another and to other people.
None of the sociology is separated in chunks, where the reader has a dose of history, family ties or social standing. Indeed, very effectively some social standing is told in a classroom setting. The students know and watch the teacher make mistakes as she is introduced to pupils, the range of society. This feat of narration keeps the book in a child’s voice, without the child running here and there, or hearing this or that, or repeating gossip contrived for the novel. Maintaining the child’s voice (certainly an intelligent child) is very hard for any novelist to do with steady consistency and true telling. [Twain in Huckleberry Finn lets Huck be young, 8-9 years, but frequently older.] Harper Lee is very careful. To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of how to write a novel – a controlled voice telling a simple story and telling of actions and interactions all centered in a small setting. There is great movement by the growing awareness of the children in their world coupled with mischievous curiosity, seeing the world of grown-ups and blundering into disturbing adult situations.
To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the South, is about those people. They and their situation – ruled by bias, distrustful of the grand outside world, limited by ignorance, misperceptions and incomprehensible reason, using logic confounded by prejudice, harboring hates and suspicions and always controlled by conventional wisdoms – go beyond that little town. They are circumstances and characteristics shared by many Southerners. They are also traits and faults confronting all Americans. In this country are settlements, neighborhoods and communities that are prone to the same debilities as this novel describes for its town. It may not be race, but religion, economics, culture or any other force that becomes embedded into minds of human beings supported by obstinate certainty. Americans like to believe, but have not always demonstrated enlightenment or reasonableness. The South provides the setting for this story, but America is the canvass that has been painted.
There is a observation about the book, personal to the author: How much of Scout came from Harper Lee, a girl growing up in a small town in the South? And how much of Truman Capote, Harper Lee’s neighbor when growing up, is reflected in the character of Dill?