Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Adventure classics -- When being good isn't good enough

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee


“I think for a child’s book it does all right” and “well, honey, one thing we know is that she’s been poaching on my literary preserves,” Southern Gothic divas Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers snipped at fellow Southerner Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, proving that great writers can be catty as the ladies of a small town’s church circle.

It’s enough to make me wonder whether another great Southern writer, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), would have wanted to rise from his grave to complain that Lee’s 1960 story of a lonely white child and an imperiled black man was stolen from his saga, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Because the issue of race relations is the defining story and defining tragedy of the American South. It’s been told many times, in many ways. And it’s nobody’s private preserve.

I’m not going to say Harper’s version is perfect. The very simplicity of its opening, “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. . . When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident,” sometimes baffles reviewer and librarians who can’t decide whether the narrator is a young child or an adult.

Scout’s hero worship of her lawyer father Atticus similarly baffles those who wonder why serving as a court-appointed attorney for an indigent defendant made Atticus heroic. After all, he only did his job, didn’t he? And how good was he at that, if his innocent client ended by being convicted and dying in an attempted prison escape?

Maybe this year’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” speech will remind us that bad as racial relations are now, they were infinitely worse in the novel’s time. Or maybe next year’s anniversary of the golden anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act will make that plain. Or maybe nothing will.

Lee’s story opens with the apparently idyllic childhood of Scout, Jem and their friend Charles Baker (Dill) Harris, in the safety of the small Alabama town of Maycomb in the 1930’s -- a time when children could play safely on the streets until after dark because everybody knew everybody. Everybody, that is, who was white and middle class.

At first, the children’s main concern is attempting to spy on their reclusive neighbor, Arthur (Boo) Radley. (Lee’s nicknames are among the humorous touches that make her tale go down smoothly.) All seems well until the time comes when Scout and Jem’s father Atticus must defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, and the children are forced to confront Maycomb’s “usual disease” of racism.

Lee has said she didn’t have in mind the notorious 1931 Scottsboro case, in which nine young black men and boys were convicted of raping two white women. All but the
youngest of the defendants, who was twelve, were sentenced to death. The case led to multiple Supreme Court rulings and retrials. However, as the daughter of another small town Alabama lawyer in the 1930’s, Lee would undoubtedly have heard Scottsboro discussed and rediscussed, with the same issues of fabricated evidence and a decision by an all-white jury she used in Mockingbird.

Decades later, some revisionist readings of Atticus Finch criticize him for not taking a proactive stance against racism, the simple answer is that he couldn’t without sacrificing his livelihood, his family, perhaps his life. Martin Luther King learned only too well what Atticus knew -- that when a system is as badly broken as the Jim Crow regime of the South, for the people living in it simply to be good isn’t good enough to fix it.

For a variety of interpretations of Lee’s work, I liked Readings on To Kill A Mockingbird, edited by Terry O’Neill. For more about the Scottsboro case, see “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a September of young protagonists with another Southern Gothic tale, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.)

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