To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

by Robert A. Parker

Second reading. I read this 1960 novel many years ago, but with the recent publication of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman—which she wrote before this one, and which covered the same characters twenty years later—I decided to reread this classic. I wanted to compare my response today with the review I wrote more than five decades ago. Because that review had not been entirely positive for a novel that is now recommended reading in every schoolroom. What had I missed?

My initial reaction to this second reading is to see why it has become so popular, so recommended by both parents and teachers. For this is the ideal book to put into an adolescent’s hands. It has a real story. It is about children; and it is told from their viewpoint, especially that of a young tomboy named Scout. And most important, almost every page teaches a lesson about how both children and adults should conduct themselves.

There are examples of how children should behave toward siblings, friends, and parents, as well as toward teachers, authorities, and neighbors—indeed, toward everyone they encounter. And also how adults should conduct themselves with their children, their relatives, and their friends, as well as with strangers of any age, any social level, and any race. Readers learn this primarily from Scout’s father, Atticus, but also from Scout’s reactions to others, especially to her brother Jem.

In some ways, this novel’s portrait of Southern society recalls The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—perhaps because that novel is also related from a child’s viewpoint. But this work is a far cry from Twain’s classic. Because the events presented here are completely on the surface. There is gossip but no true social satire, and there is no subtle Southern texture, no psychological complexity, no hidden meanings boiling just below the surface.

Indeed, the Gregory Peck movie version was so successful, I believe, because there is so little under the surface to bring forth. And movies, with their emphasis on the visual, belong to the surface. They always find it difficult to capture the complex subtleties inside any work of fiction.

Three children are at the center of this novel, Scout, her brother Jem, four years older, and their friend Dill, a smart but immature boy supposedly based on the author’s friend, Truman Capote. Much of the action and most of the social observations revolve around Scout’s father Atticus Finch. He is a respected lawyer, with a black servant, Calpurnia, running his household.

Beyond Scout’s home are gossiping neighbors who provide simple social satire, and downtown are Judge Taylor and Sheriff Tate, both involved with the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. This trial and its repercussions are the centerpiece of the novel. Finally, there are the Cunninghams and the Ewells, lower class whites derided by the upper levels of white society, and Boo Radley, a neighbor who represents innocence.

Early events in the novel show Scout’s childhood life, from tensions on the school playground and in the classroom, to the scouting of recluse Boo Radley’s house, to the building of a snowman and its loss in a neighborhood fire, to, finally, the arrival of Aunt Alexandra to “civilize” Scout and Jem.

Then the rape of an Ewell girl and the trial of Tom Robinson is introduced. In my original reading, I suggested that the rape and the subsequent events exist in an adult world that the children do not belong to, and that they had to be forced into that world (as downtown witnesses at night, and joining the blacks in the courtroom balcony). I did not feel that earlier concern this time, but that reaction does have validity. Meanwhile, town events ranged from the people’s reaction to Atticus defending a “nigger,” to a dramatic confrontation with Atticus before the jail, to the extended treatment of the trial itself. Some critics, note, attribute the details of the trial to Lee’s interest in the law, and to her father having been a lawyer.

I wondered, however, in my first review whether Scout’s innocence might have been better joined to the heart of her childhood if Boo Radley had been identified more as an outsider, like the blacks were, and that Scout could have seen in her treatment of Boo much of what she objected to in the treatment of blacks. Or, if rather than Tom Robinson being accused of rape, someone in Calpurnia’s family was accused, for this would have given that trial much more significance in Scout’s personal life.

For its conclusion, the novel switches back to Scout’s childhood, specifically to her school’s Halloween pageant in which she wears a clumsy costume. On heading home from the school at night, she is attacked and falls, and during that confusion a man is killed. In both readings, I found the circumstances of that attack quite arbitrary, because it represented a return to Scout’s childhood, and it had no connection to the preceding events, except its justification of Boo Radley’s presence in the novel. There is also a lengthy discussion between Tate and Atticus about whom to blame for the death, which bothered me until I realized that underneath was a debate about how not to charge a good man with the death of the evil man who attacked Scout.

When Go Tell a Watchman came out last month, we learned the story behind the creation of Mockingbird. That Harper Lee wrote Watchman first, and that her New York editor convinced this young author that the real story was in Scout’s youth twenty years earlier. And so Lee wrote Mockingbird, a novel that created a very different Atticus Finch. For the Atticus of Watchman is a member of the White Citizens’ Council, while the Atticus of Mockingbird is himself mocked for “defending a nigger.” (Although one might note that Atticus does say that the leader of a lynch mob in Mockingbird is “basically a good man,” with “blind spots along with the rest of us.”)

All of which started me speculating. For Watchman was written in the late 1950s, when the civil rights movement was just picking up steam, and I wondered if the New York editor was perhaps not comfortable with publishing a beginner’s novel in which a main character is a member of the White Citizens’ Council and the work is filled with racist venom. And so to get around this, my theory holds, she suggested that this novice author refine her work and focus on an innocent child as the heroine who is just confronting the racial reality of that era, the 1930s. Which the young author did. Whether or not this happened, it is interesting to note that there is a trial of a black man in both novels, and that the outcomes are reversed—as if Lee chose a negative result in the 1930s novel to make her racial point stronger.

But it is also interesting to note law professor Monroe Freedman, who observed that Atticus did not change that much. That he went along with the white supremecist times in each case. In Mockingbird, he defended Robinson only because he was assigned that task; and he did not object to the prevailing norm of no black jurymen, nor to their segregation in the courtroom. Whereas in Watchman, when the civil rights movement is beginning and white Southerners are reacting with White Citizens’ Councils, we learn Atticus stays with the politics of his fellow Southerners.

Is the shift simply because the older Atticus is more conservative, more resistant to social change? And being a politician in Mockingbird, he is geared to remain so in Watchman?

A current New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani helps to set up the differences in the two novels. “Mockingbird… represents a determined effort to see both the bad and the good in small-town life, the hatred and the humanity; it presents an idealized father-daughter relationship…and views the past not as something lost but as a treasured memory. In a 1963 interview, Ms. Lee, who now lives in her old hometown, Monroeville, Ala., said of Mockingbird: ‘The book is not an indictment so much as a plea for something, a reminder to people at home.’”

Perhaps we might conclude that both novels are a tale of innocence. It is a sin to kill the mockingbird of the 1930’s book because the bird is an innocent. As Scout is an innocent girl in Mockingbird when, from the ages of five to eight, she discovers the real world and thinks she understands a father who is totally good. While in Watchman, now called Jean Louise, she returns home to discover her father is not who she thinks he is, but is actually a bigot.

In my original review, I speculated that Mockingbird might end up being Lee’s only novel because “the first half is truly her own life and the second half is mainly her imagination.” And that she may have “written herself out of her childhood memories.” But I also wrote that I would be interested in reading her next work, because “she can create children, can create the Southern scene, can be humorous, can be compassionate, can know exactly what she is doing in framing her scenes, and can create an interesting variety of people. {But] can—will—she do it again?”

It was worth reading To Kill a Mockingbird again. But the earlier, and less accomplished according to critics, Watchman is not at this point on my reading list. (August, 2015)

Advertisements