A Friend of Boo Radley – The 50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird

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I have read some of the retrospectives and criticisms of To Kill a Mockingbird. July 11, 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's book, originally published by the J.B. Lippencott Company.

I hope that Harper Lee can take some pleasure in still kicking up a bit of dust and fuss with her book.

This post will contain spoilers so if you have not read the book or seen the movie stop and make amends at your local library, bookstore, Netflix or if you still have one, a DVD store.

Below is a scene from a documentary by Mary McDonagh Murphy on various authors talking about the book. I viewed this video at the current publisher Harper Collins 50th Anniversary web site.

There is a warm sadness of recognition for what the book and movie represents: prejudice, the limitations of the law, displays of respect and the constricting ties of community both seen and unseen.

There Are Questions

Any work of fiction or literature that can't hold up to questions and concerns ain't worth the pulp it is printed on or pixel that is pulsed.

To be sure, there have been folks questioning the validity of the book's high esteem among the public. Some are even saying that To Kill a Mockingbird is not worth the love and reverence that has been attached to the work or the movie. Some readers feel that it is not a good book.

The opinion pieces by Allen Barra in the Wall Street Journal and Malcolm Gladwell's 2009 article in the New Yorker ask legitimate questions about the book:

  • Does Harper Lee use stereotypical characters to tell her tale, or did she accurately show the thought processes of an American 1930's community in the context of the story?
  • Did the characters have a transformative experience that caused them see their world in a different light?
  • If they did not change or evolve, does that invalidate the quality of the story?

Some fiction books really are rooted in their time of creation. It is also true that our tastes evolve and change. For some, rereading the book will not have the same resonance. It will be lacking something that you could not see until now. It happens.

To Kill a Mockingbird encourages us to face truth. If you no longer like the book then that is your truth. I understand and respect it. But judge it fair, within the context of its time and place.

The Author's Responsibility

An author only has one main responsibility: to tell the best story that he or she can produce.

Once it is fixed in a permanent form, the story takes a life of its own. The primary relationship is that of story to reader. An author can comment and provide additional insights, but the couple, the reader and the story, are left to work it out for themselves.

There is no question that the book and movie have inspired people. There are legions of young people who were inspired to become lawyers because of the character of Atticus Finch. Depending on how you feel about lawyers, Harper Lee should not be praised or condemned for that unforeseen circumstance. After all, she probably caused just as many folks to either start writing books or chuck the pen in the trash can in frustration.

Perhaps the inspiration comes not in the 30 second sound bite themes but in the small triumphs that occur just out of the line of vision. A son's growing respect for an older father. The insatiable curiosity of childhood. Maybe it is the self-determination of Scout to be who she wants to be and not molded into ideas of "girly things" before she is ready.

We understand the Cunningham family's total unwillingness to take any form of charity or governmental assistance. We know people like the Ewells who take what they can get, do as little as possible and wail to high heaven that they have been wronged. I honestly do not like the old term that refers to people as “trash,” yet I have met and known people, irrespective of class and race, that were indeed the embodiment of a living waste of being.

For those of us that have an appreciation of the work, we absorb some kind of communion with the characters that will not turn us loose after the last page. That is the power of true storytelling beyond the intentions of the author. There is an on-going loving relationship between the story and the millions of readers.

Is It A Book about Race or of Class?

As much as people point out that this is a book about race, I almost want to say, "No, it isn’t." It is more about how a community conducts itself within the structure of rigid and blind adherence to a class system than about Jim Crow laws.

Make no mistake, there is racism in the book. In the world of the book, African Americans are treated as ciphers. The movie presents African Americans even less than ciphers, except for Tom. In the reality of the 1930's, African Americans would have to aspire to be as cipher-like as possible in order to survive and co-exist with certain white communities.

The dilemma for the white community in the book is a question of higher precedence; is a lower class white man's demand for justice more important than a black man falsely charged with a crime? Community cohesiveness was much more important than justice.

You cannot respect what you cannot see, experience or acknowledge. The challenge Atticus Finch is forced to confront is whether the rules of law and reason supersede prejudice and entrenched community values. The answer was no, not at that time.

Can you continue to live in integrity when it does not? How do you respond on a daily basis?

Political correctness or accusations of liberal thought cannot be applied here. The community standards of the time, both in the America of the 1930's and in the book, dictated the response of the characters in the book.

The class issues of today are equally tangled with race and economics.

Is It A Book about Family and Fatherhood?

Scout fights with her brother and with the women for being forced into girly dresses. Jem fights internally about having an older father that he doesn’t wan to disappoint.

Atticus loves his children beyond measure and tries to raise them to be good people in depression era America. Yet, he is prepared to turn over his son in the name and spirit of the law when he thought that Jem killed their attacker.

What kind of man is this? Are there limits to ethics when it comes to love and our children? Would we want to live among such a man? Are there limits to ideals in the face of humanity? Many of us would like nothing better than to have a sip of cider on the porch talking with Mr. Finch to find out.

Is It About The Logs in Our Eyes?

In the world of the book and movie, there are good people and hypocrites. We in the real world may hide it better. On the bad days, we shame ourselves as we display our base natures.

We are equally constrained by the rules of community and conformity. To Kill a Mockingbird challenges us to do better, to take that extra step of consideration that isn’t maudlin or simplistic. It is just the willingness to understand and do better for one day.

So yes, there are valid questions, and we each have our own questions and answers. I welcome your comments and perspectives, even if you don't like the book.

More Reading and Resources

Hadley Freeman at Book Group Librarian has more about the backlash about the book.

Jezebel has more to say about Allen Barra’s Wall Street Journal opinion column.

Mary McDonagh Murphy has created a documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird about readers’ memories and responses to the book.

OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook
at WBUR.org in Boston has a discussion about the book with Claudia Durst Johnson, Rick Bragg and Catherine Jones. The discussion leans closer toward how the book was created, the historical events during the time of its publication and the book’s continued attraction. You can listen via the web site or on iTunes.

The Smithsonian Museum Magazine has an excellent write up about the anniversary, some clarifications about the complaints of passages in the book and a wee bit of historical perspective.

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