Taking up Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel fifty-five years later, a wary reader has two immediate impressions: 1) it’s not nearly as good as its reputation, and 2) it’s not as bad as one might have feared. Few novels have been so smothered with accolades as To Kill a Mockingbird, the accolades themselves so thick they have tended to obscure the novel itself, which its publisher brashly calls a masterpiece and which American librarians have named the best novel of the twentieth century (apparently overlooking a roll-call that runs from Henry James and Edith Wharton to Phillip Roth).
Reduced to a simple outline, Mockingbird is the chronicle of the experiences, ordinary and extraordinary, of a brother and sister, who, over two summers and two autumns in a Depression-era small Southern town, enjoy the simple pleasures of a life in which the freedom to wander and explore is a natural birthright. Free of school and enjoying minimal adult supervision, ten-year-old Jem Finch (ne Jeremy Atticus) and his six-year-old sister Scout (nee Jean Louise) have more or less free license to follow their curiosity wherever it leads them, whether it’s in their own back yards and neighborhood collard patches, or in the echoing chambers of the county courthouse where their childhood innocence will eventually collide with the reality of adult corruption.
Jem is something of a brooder, constantly defining and redefining himself as he moves toward the confusions of adolescence; Scout is a budding iconoclast gifted with physical daring, a dress-hating girl whose kind was once called tomboys. Neither sibling has much depth as characters, though, having been created, it seems, to perform mostly as each other’s foil. Scout is pushed to the front in the story, and is a narrative device (she is the novel’s voice, though spoken from an unspecified distance in the future) as much as she is a character. She’s especially good at spotting the contradictions and hypocrisies of her elders, which are plentiful in her small town and which figure prominently in the novel’s plot.
Their widowed father, a locally revered lawyer named Atticus, presides over a motherless household as a reluctant authoritarian, treating his children as small adults in need of only the barest parental guidance. Portrayed as wise beyond the reach of most mortals, Atticus has a live-and-let-live attitude toward parenting and life in general that Harper Lee allows to be vindicated in every instance where Atticus falls back on it for guidance. His only parental responsibility it seems is the dispensation of the gentlest possible hand of reproof, usually delivered as an aphorism while the child is curled up in his warm lap. He allows them to call him by his first name.
The first half of To Kill a Mockingbird is largely an exercise in childhood nostalgia, a picture of a moment when scarcity and hard times created equality among those under its grip, and children sought their vernal recreations in the fields that hugged every town. The Depression enforced an interdependence of need on the populace, especially in the rural South, when a kind of barter system took the place of cash—a farmer paid a lawyer’s bill with a sack of hazelnuts, while uncertainty held its hand over the heads of the high and the low. Hard times were mostly peaceful, though, accepted stoically. Children played games in the cool dusks, babies “squalled” instead of crying, and when a thing was owned by someone, it was “his’n.” Harper Lee’s portrayal of the texture of the place she’s creating, much like the real place she grew up in, is pitch perfect, especially its speech, which is easily mangled by a less sensitive and knowing ear.
It’s when Lee interrupts her pastoral tale to turn to darker human corners that she demonstrates a weakness for navigating the complex morality and tangled motives of her subject matter. In what is arguably the novel’s dramatic center, Atticus is given the task of defending a local black man, Tom Robinson, who’s accused of raping a white woman. Instead of offering a nuanced treatment of character and drama in what is a highly volatile circumstance, Lee resorts instead to stereotyping and improbable plot turns. In a scene reminiscent of Perry Mason, Atticus pulls off a courtroom revelation that proves Robinson’s innocence to all but those hardened impenetrably against the other race. Curiously, Lee has the local jury find Robinson guilty anyway, presumably to demonstrate Atticus’s lonely superiority where matters of justice are concerned, and establishing him as a moral martyr. Atticus leaves the courtroom in victory, though, the blacks in the balcony rising to show their respect as he passes.
In an earlier scene, Lee has young Scout, a plucky second-grader, reason with a racist lynch mob that has come to impose its own kind of justice on Tom Robinson. She succeeds in shaming them by particularizing the mob into a single personage, a man who is a client of Atticus’s and the father of one of her schoolmates, meeting him head-on as a human being in the face of a shouting mob. Scout subdues the man by gentle scolding, and the mob, seeing the light, meekly drives away without a whimper. Imagine such a scene taking place during the recent furies in Ferguson, Missouri.
Throughout the novel, the presence of a local recluse named Boo Radley has haunted Jem and Scout, a mystery that has perpetually dared them to flush him out of the darkness he’s lived in for decades. By the time of the events of To Kill a Mocingbird, Boo has accumulated a myth that describes him in the most terrifying terms—he’s chained to his bed and beaten, he eats live cats. When the unmasking of Boo finally occurs, it’s in a confusingly rendered sequence that Lee allows to remain ambiguous, a scene that also serves as an opportunity to rid the plot of a character who, it is strongly implied, is the guilty party who committed the crime Tom Robinson was convicted of. At a moment in a novel when authorial mastery of a scene is called for, Harper Lee leaves her readers scratching their heads about what happened in a consequential scene that in the end is imbued more with serio-comic elements (Scout is dressed as a country ham for an agricultural fair when the events occur) than it is the relief of tension that should follow a dramatic revelation.
But Lee tragically neglects another character, not actually in the novel, but whose presence could have been significant, adding a more serious mood to a book that badly needs gravitas—Atticus’s wife and the mother of Jem and Scout. She’s dispensed with in a single paragraph early in the novel, and referred to only glancingly in two or three other places. It’s tempting to call such an omission a dereliction, a way out for an author unable to carry the burden of a more complex novel. A missing parent often exerts greater power and influence on the lives around her than the parent who is present. It’s almost an act of disrespect by Lee to have a mother’s children so little interested in her and in what in them came from her. Whatever Atticus feels about his deceased wife is equally left blank. Lee never lets us know whether the snap beans and potatoes Atticus is given in recompense for his lawyering satisfies all of his hunger.
To Kill a Mockingbird is not a bad novel, but it hardly meets the literary requirements for greatness that its legions of readers have so generously and uncritically conferred on it. Much of its success no doubt is owed to the fact that it’s not the complex novel that it might have been, that the reading goes down without much effort. It’s also benefited from its ongoing reputation, which is a force of its own that drives it year after year to enviably high levels of sales. One explanation of its success may have to do with the accident of its birth. It arrived as a point of light in a time of darkness. The civil rights revolution was gathering momentum then, operating in the midst of a welter of violence, terror, and death. Against this backdrop, Harper Lee’s novel appeared, with its simple parable of goodness struggling to assert itself, though not altogether successfully, with its effort to demonstrate how one man’s integrity gave a glimpse into what might be possible by procreating that integrity. And for all the exaggeration of Atticus Finch’s unflagging virtue, his existence in the literature of a crucial moment in American history had a psychological force that instilled hope, giving Atticus’s slow and thoughtful voice the opportunity to demonstrate that the literary sometimes has to make way for other influences on the heart.