In 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.
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.