To Kill a Mockingbird
Published: Jul 01, 2010
I never thought I’d see the day when the lawyer who argued Brown v. Topeka Board of Education before the Supreme Court and went on to be the first African-American to sit on that Court would have his career reduced to that most dreaded of all contemporary labels: “activist.” < I never thought I'd see the day when you can legally carry concealed weapons into airports and bars. I never thought otherwise smart adults would tell me that, given the chance to own real estate, America's poor bought so many houses they couldn't afford that they tanked the economy of almost every country in the world. But then, I never thought I'd see the day when “To Kill A Mockingbird” --- a novel that has inspired readers for half a century --- would be derided as a book about “the limitations of liberalism” (by Malcolm Gladwell, no less, in The New Yorker, of all places) and “a sugar-coated myth of Alabama’s past” with a hero who’s “a repository of cracker-barrel epigrams" (by Allen Barra, in the Wall Street Journal).
But as we approach July 11th — the 50th anniversary of the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (to buy the paperback from Amazon, click here; shamefully, there is no Kindle edition) — it’s probably not surprising that we’re seeing one of America’s best-loved books criticized for its “politics.” And it’s definitely no surprise that the downgrading is done by men.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a woman’s book. Written by a woman, Harper Lee, but more, written by a woman who dared to see herself as her region’s Jane Austen. Told by a six-year-old girl. With a hero who’s not, in any traditional sense, manly. With a message of kindness and empathy generally associated with female values:
And one more female value, once common in the heroes of Western movies, but less and less common by the time Harper Lee wrote her novel — a willingness to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Readers often forget, but this is the foundation of the character of Atticus Finch: He takes on the legal defense of an African-American, knowing he can’t prevail in court.
“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,” he tells his children. “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.”
I’m not one for stereotyping, but how many men do you know who step up to confront unpleasantness and conflict? Here’s Atticus: "Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open."
Atticus Finch is — let’s just say it — a feminized man who appeared a decade before America started hearing about feminism. No wonder he appeals to English teachers, who tend to be idealists. And no wonder the film is a “family” favorite — mothers choose it in the hope it will make their kids kinder. (To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.)
In the long clock of history, we stopped killing each other over resources only a moment ago. Since then, we make progress, we take a step backward — civilization is a recent, fragile concept. But I take it as an unvarnished Good Thing that readers have persistently loved “To Kill a Mockingbird” for as long as it’s been in print. I think it’s just great that Mary Murphy has written a book about Harper Lee’s book: “Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of 50 Years of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” (To buy the book of “Scout, Atticus & Boo,” click here. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.)