It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbirdand everyone is celebrating by writing about how it wasn’t so great after all. This novel, which won a Pulitzer Prize, sold over 30 million copies and by the 80’s was required reading in three fourths of all American high schools.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Allen Bara says the book may be a lot of things, but it’s not a classic. That’s probably OK with Lee who, even though she has made a lot of money and never wrote another book, says she didn’t expect it to succeed at all. It’s success was “as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected,” she said in a rare interview in 1964.
Bara says the book is not a classic because the characters are not original and the dialogue is artifical. He says Scout’s father Atticus is based on Lee’s father and the character of Thomas More in a play on stage at the time, “the only saint in a courtroom full of the weak, the foolish and the wicked” who is full of “a repository of cracker-barrel epigrams.”
Wow, that’s harsh.
It gets worse, however. The book lacks moral ambiguity, Bara says, citing another critic who calls it “an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious.” He concludes:
It’s time to stop pretending that To Kill a Mockingbird is some kind of timeless classic that ranks with the great works of American literature. Its bloodless liberal humanism is sadly dated, as pristinely preserved in its pages as the dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park.
But timing is everything, and released at the cusp of the civil rights movement, it became what Sarah McCarry at the Huffington Post called “the only book about race many white Americans have ever read.” She cites blogger Malcom D. who says the book allows white American’s “to soothe themselves with the thought that racism is something that happened in one part of the country, long ago; and, thanks to the heroic activities of noble men like Atticus, all of that is over now.”
And this is the focus of most of the current criticism. Lee just wasn’t black enough and her white characters weren’t bad enough. Or something like that.
But what if it’s not a book about race at all?
One of my favorite Southern writers, Flannery O’Conner, was a contemporary of Lee and said, “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”
If this is true, perhaps it doesn’t have as much moral ambiguity as adults might like. And perhaps it doesn’t need it, either.
Peggy Noonan touches on this in a wonderful essay about the failure of leadership in politics, business and journalism: “Youth has outlived its usefullness.” She writes
In the 50th anniversary commentary this week of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, a book long derided as middlebrow by middlebrows, no one fully noted the centrality, the cosmic force, that propelled the book, and that is the idea of the father. Of the human longing to be safe and watched over by one stronger. And so we have the wise and grounded Atticus Finch, who understands the world and pursues justice anyway, and who can be relied upon.
Here is the last sentence: “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”
Kids need someone like this. So do we. It’s the story of the Bible, a Father who loves us and watches over us: “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me.”
According to Miss Maudie, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
I for one am glad Lee got to sing her song.
Over at albinoblacksheep.com you can see a video send up of the book, the book report by the kid who didn’t finish the book.
See the trailer from the film with Gregory Peck as Atticus.
Random fact: Sandra Bullock played Harper Lee in the film Infamous, a film about Truman Capote who was Lee’s childhood friend and the basis of Scout’s friend Dill in the novel.
When To Kill a Mockingbird was banned as “immoral” by a school in Virgina Harper Lee wrote a letter to the school board and said, “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. ”