Is To Kill a Mockingbird Still a Great Book?

By Nancy Jane Moore

To Kill a MockingbirdIn my post last week on favorite literary fiction, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird showed up on many of the lists posted in the comments. It’s generally considered one of the great books of the 20th Century.

I haven’t re-read it in a very long time, but I remember it affected me deeply when I read it soon after it came out. I was a kid, not a whole lot older than Scout, but even though it’s from a child’s point of view, it’s not a kid’s book. Not only did everyone in my family read it, my parents actually took my sister and me to the movie when it came out. Given that I can count the number of movies my parents took us to on the fingers of one hand, this was an event.

Since I grew up in a white society not dissimilar to the small town Alabama of To Kill a Mockingbird, albeit one that was changing rapidly due to the Civil Rights Movement, the story resonated with me. But while looking for distraction over the weekend, I stumbled on some essays that raised some troubling issues about the story. In particular, these pieces questioned whether Atticus Finch was really a hero.

In a New Yorker essay called “The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism,” Malcolm Gladwell writes of Atticus’s actions after his client was convicted, “If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t.”

Law and American Studies Professor Duchess Harris, annoyed by a commencement speaker’s glorification of Atticus as a role model for modern lawyers, observes on her blog, “Why are law professors still looking to a book written fifty years ago for a model of racial equality that will work today?”

Both of these pieces point out that while Atticus represented an unpopular client, he did nothing to challenge the status quo of a racist society that allowed such injustice to happen. He simply did what any decent, moral lawyer would have done: He made sure the legal system played by the rules.

Lawyers are supposed to represent unpopular clients and to do a good job of it. However, a lot of lawyers will duck this responsibility. Those who do will be subjected to criticism and even hate. It shouldn’t take unusual courage to do something that any decent person, much less a member of a profession sworn to uphold the Constitution and the law, would do, but sometimes it does.

That’s a kind of heroism. But it doesn’t make Atticus Finch a civil rights hero. It only makes him a man who did his job as it was supposed to be done.

I think Gladwell and Harris’s criticism comes from the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird has been treated as if it were about African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s not. It’s a book about white people.

Yes, it’s set in Jim Crow America, and it shows the evils of that with an honesty that was uncommon at the time it was written, but it shows them from the point of view of white people. Everything we know about the African Americans in To Kill a Mockingbird is filtered through Scout’s point of view and what her father tells her.

It’s a deadly accurate picture of the white society of that time and place. It shows the decency as well as the evil, shows what is good about that society without neglecting what’s wrong with it. But it does not show a man storming the barricades to fight injustice, nor does it tell the readers what the African Americans really think about any of this.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great book, but it does mean that it isn’t the stirring tale of a man fighting against injustice that many white people would like it to be. Like many books, it needs to be read in the context of both the time in which it is set and the time in which it was written and published.

It 1960, it shone a light on ugly truths that were usually ignored. In 2010, it gives us an honest picture of what middle class white people did and didn’t do during the Jim Crow years. It’s still worth reading.

Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, will be released by Book View Cafe next week. Watch for the official announcement.

My story “Gambit” appears in the new anthology No Man’s Land, now available from Dark Quest Press. You can read an excerpt on Book View Cafe.

My novella Changeling is available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.


About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Is To Kill a Mockingbird Still a Great Book? — 6 Comments

  1. “I think Gladwell and Harris’s criticism comes from the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird has been treated as if it were about African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s not. It’s a book about white people.”

    Which likely explains its enduring popularity with white readers. POC? Not so much.

    Love, C.

  2. I think what makes the book is the slantwise telling of the story–things are going on around Scout and her brother Jem which they cannot understand–her neighbor’s morphine addiction; the trial of Tom Robinson; the scene when the mob threatens to lynch Tom; the sexual undercurrents in the Ewell family.

    Even at the time the book was written it was an historical novel; I’d have the same problem if Atticus were a 1960s anti-racist as I would with a 1980s feminist in Regency England. He’s a man of his time and upbringing who just happens to be a little more decent and upright than some of the people around him, and it costs him and threatens his family, and that’s the heroism. He’s not the only one: the sherriff, Heck Tate, is a decent man (by the standards of his time and place), and there are others–all seen through the lens of Scout’s incomplete understanding.

    I always loved Atticus–who never expected to be a single parent–working to be as nurturing as his nature allows, against the gender expectations of his time. He’s not a perfect man, but he’s a good father. As some of the other fathers in the book suggest, that’s not unheroic itself.

  3. Admittedly, it’s been eons since I read Mockingbird, and my memory doesn’t adequately hold defined scenes. But even in my youth, I saw the book as about human beings and how they play off one another and react and learn from each other. I never saw it as a book about justice but about potential and our ability to grow. But then, back when I was reading it, I didn’t look for heroes but lessons.

  4. When I was a kid, we were discouraged against reading this book, because of the content. I read it at twelve anyway. It had a tremendous impact on me–bringing home aspects of the civil rights questions that were only whispered about, and of course any question by kids earned an instant “Hush! That’s not an appropriate subject!”

    The actual charge went straight over my head. I had a hazy idea that it was about being attacked and beat up, and that it was okay for parents to do that (which my experience bore out, as in those days, spankings were common, including with hangers, belts, rulers, etc) but not strangers.

    What got me was the unfairness of race relations, intensified by Scout’s observations, which were absolutely riveting on the kid level. In later years, when I taught the book, I could see classes–with very little guidance–beginning to see the world of that time through Scout’s eyes. The kids would begin to comprehend on a visceral level the tensions of that time, even if it was from the white person’s POV.

  5. The only thing that stayed with me from that book, besides a vague sense of unease and disappointment, was the series of scenes about the neighbor with the morpheme addiction. Her determination to overcome it before she died, and the power of the stories and the support that she used, that was what stayed with me.
    Possibly I need to read it again, but compared to, say, The Color Purple, it was hardly impactful, and it felt detached. TCP, now, that was a book where every little piece of horror and joy hit like a sledgehammer.

  6. Yeah. It’s not really about race relations. It’s about Scout learning how to behave toward other people. Race is only one of the issues.