To Kill a Mockingbird and a Problematic History

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” –Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” –Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Spoiler alert: This post assumes you have read To Kill a Mockingbird at some point.

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During the holidays, I re-read the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted to grab everyone I know and say, “Read this book!” I also wanted to tweet every quotable sentence. So why didn’t I? Why did I keep my read quiet? Quite simply, because I felt uncomfortable recommending a book that includes such an explicit culture of racism. Which is weird. Because the entire book is about fighting racism and evil and standing up for your beliefs.

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The beginning of the novel sets the stage for the story and introduces us to a feisty little girl named Scout (the narrator) who is on the verge of starting first grade when the story begins; her older brother, Jem (on the verge of fifth grade); and their friend Dill. We also meet the book’s seriously crushable quiet hero, Atticus Finch, who is a lawyer in their Deep South fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, and who is Scout’s and Jem’s father. And we meet the strong, stern, and lovable, Calpurnia, who is the cook, housekeeper, and mother figure.

It had been quite awhile since I’d read it, and I fell in love with the book and most everyone in it almost immediately, starting with Scout.

Dill was becoming something of a trial anyway, following Jem about. He had asked me earlier in the summer to marry him, then he promptly forgot about it. He staked me out, marked me as his property, said I was the only girl he would ever love, then he neglected me. I beat him up twice but it did no good.

Of course, the story is not just about the everyday pain of growing through childhood. Instead that frame of childhood beauty, loss, and growth showcases Atticus Finch’s unwillingness to do anything less than his best to defend a black man charged with the rape of a white girl—at a time and in a place when such an endeavor was surely doomed, despite that man’s innocence. It’s a seriously beautiful book about the ugly nature of racism, how mostly good people can fall prey to mob mentality, how being innocent doesn’t necessarily mean a thing (even in this country, where it’s supposed to), and especially about one man’s stand for justice in the way he could make it. “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,” says Atticus to his children at one point. “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

Atticus’ words refer to someone else, but it’s he who especially demonstrates their meaning time and again.

When a mob comes for the accused, Tom Robinson, the men find Atticus waiting outside the jail to make sure no harm comes to his charge.  This will be the second time he’s been visited by a group of “concerned” citizens, only the threat of harm is far more likely on this occasion. Atticus’s children and Dill, unbeknownst to Atticus, have followed him, and are watching hidden.

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“You know what we want,” another man said. “Get aside from the door, Mr. Finch.”

“You can turn around and go home again, Walter,” Atticus said pleasantly. “[Sheriff] Heck Tate’s around somewhere.”

“The hell he is,” said another man. “Heck’s bunch’s so deep to the woods they won’t get out till mornin’.”

“Indeed? Why so?”

“Called ’em off on a snipe hunt,” was the succinct answer. “Didn’t you think a’that, Mr. Finch?”

“Thought about it, but didn’t believe it. Well then,” my father’s voice was still the same, “That changes things, doesn’t it?”

“It do,” another deep voice said. Its owner was a shadow.

“Do you really think so?”

This was the second time I heard Atticus ask that question in two days, and it meant somebody’s man would get jumped [as in chess]. This was too good to miss. I broke away from Jem and ran as fast as I could to Atticus.

Jem shrieked and tried to catch me, but I had a lead on him and Dill. I pushed my way through dark smelly bodies and burst into the circle of light.

“Hey, Atticus!”

I thought he would have a fine surprise, but his face killed my joy. A flash of plain fear was going out of his eyes, but returned when Dill and Jem wriggled into the light.

There was a smell of stale whiskey and pigpen about, and when I glanced around I discovered that these men were strangers. They were not the people I saw last night. Hot embarrassment shot through me: I had leaped triumphantly into a ring of people I had never seen before.

Atticus got up from his chair, but he was moving slowly, like an old man. He put the newspaper down very carefully, adjusting its creases with lingering fingers. They were trembling a little.

“Go home, Jem,” he said. “Take Scout and Dill home.”

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In thinking about writing this, I did a little research and was not surprised to find that although To Kill a Mockingbird was published to great acclaim and has a solid place in many “best of” lists, the book is also one that has, according to Banned Books Awareness, a long history of being controversial. “Racial slurs, profanity, and blunt dialogue about rape have led people to challenge its appropriateness in libraries and classrooms so often that, today, The American Library Association reports that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most challenged classics of all time.” Indeed, “even as recently as 2011 and amid 326 other book challenges for that year, it ranks in the top ten more than 50 years after seeing print.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is the only book Harper Lee, a white woman who grew up in the South, gave us. I imagine it took a lot out of her. It was set during the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression, but was published in 1960 just a few years before Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech and during the time when the Civil Rights Movement was truly heating up.

A recent book, The Help, which was published in early 2009, also tackles issues of racism and standing up against injustice, albeit with a much lighter touch and with less overtly at stake. The Help, which I read not too long after it was published, was set during the early ’60s, in other words, when To Kill a Mockingbird was actually published, so granted that is one big difference. Still for all my caveats, while reading the latter, I couldn’t help but think how much the former reflects the sensibilities of our time, despite being set in the past and despite being rife with racism. For example The Help‘s villain Hilly Holbrook is capital-B bad, and is punished accordingly. On the other hand, though the Finch family is so good, warm, and lovable you might want to move in to hug them all (well, the ones you meet early anyway), the villain is not so easy to locate. That is to say, though there’s definitely a villainous man, the real villain is harder to touch—it’s the evil that infects a whole society into thinking some people are more equal than others, and the different ways people deal with that. There’s a weary acceptance of time and place, despite all that is done by Atticus and others to fight injustice.

To Kill a Mockingbird is as hard as it is lovable. Though it contains optimism, there are no easy fixes. No big show at the end that wraps things in a tidy bow. Justice does carry forward, though more subtly, and not without loss of life, plenty of pain, and the intimation that the battle ain’t over yet.

The book most certainly serves as a reminder of a certain historical ugliness (as many classic Southern books do, though Southern books don’t have a monopoly). The kind of thing that, although it exists in a different form today (in many ways, really), is certainly not blatantly acknowledged the way it is in this book. (Not to mention some other issues the book highlights or alludes to.) But I don’t think any of those bad things are minimized or glorified, not even close. Still, I’m not standing in front of a high school classroom trying to explain this book’s issues: I’m an adult reading in the privacy of my own home who’s had a few years to understand the issues the book raises and can contextualize those. And even so, I felt weird talking about a book that has, for lack of a better way to put it, an ugly underbelly.

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“I simply want to tell you that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them,” [said Miss Maudie.]
“Oh,” said Jem. “Well.”
“Don’t you oh well me, sir,” Miss Maudie replied, recognizing Jem’s fatalistic noises, “you are not old enough to appreciate what I said.”
Jem was staring at his half-eaten cake. “It’s like bein’ a caterpillar in a cocoon, that’s what it is,” he said. “Like somethin’ asleep wrapped up in a warm place. I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that’s what they seemed like.”

“We’re the safest folks in the world,” said Miss Maudie. “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.”

Jem grinned ruefully. “Wish the rest of the county thought that.”

“You’d be surprised how many of us do.”

“Who?” Jem’s voice rose. “Who in this town did one thing to help Tom Robinson, just who?”

“His colored friends for one thing, and people like us. People like Judge Taylor. People like Mr. Heck Tate. Stop eating and start thinking, Jem. Did it ever strike you that Judge Taylor naming Atticus to defend that boy was no accident? That Judge Taylor might have had his reasons for naming him?”

This was a thought. Court-appointed defenses were usually given to Maxwell Green, Maycomb’s latest addition to the bar, who needed the experience. Maxwell Green should have had Tom Robinson’s case.

“You think about that,” Miss Maudie was saying. “It was no accident. I was sittin’ there on the porch last night, waiting. I waited and waited to see you all come down the sidewalk, and as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step—it’s just a baby-step, but it’s a step.”

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The empathy it evokes, the pleasure of fighting injustice, if only vicariously—taken as a whole and for so many reasons, I found To Kill a Mockingbird beautiful. The beauty and worth seems clear to me for me. But I wonder: How I might see things if I fit into any number of other demographics?

Do you think the access to a book like To Kill a Mockingbird should be regulated? In what way? Do you avoid reading such books? (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Moviegoerand Lolita are three more books that come to mind.)

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “To Kill a Mockingbird and a Problematic History

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