The Enduring Moral and Political Vision of Harper Lee's 'To Kill A Mockingbird'


Sunday was the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee being awarded the Pulitzer for her great novel.  I am therefore reposting a diary from last year that addressed the book, in part as a result of a column by Kathleen Parker:

To kill a mockingbird is a sin, Finch told his children, because it brings no harm to others. "They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us," a neighbor further explained.

Likewise, trying to kill a great book because a 50-year-old literary character doesn't measure up to modern critics' idea of heroism is a sin. All Harper Lee ever did, after all, was sing her heart out for us.

So ends a column by Kathleen Parker with the title Revisionist fire at author Harper Lee should be dampened.  It is written at least in part as a response to Malcolm Gladwell's criticism of the book, of Atticus Finch as insufficiently outraged or moved to action.  Parker sees the point of literature as different.  I find myself agreeing with Parker, with her muse in matters like this, Walker Percy.  I want to explore the idea of how art moves us.

Parker reminds us of a criticism parallel of that of Gladwell's.  George Orwell criticized Dickens, because "he never offered solutions to the problems he illuminated."  Parker wonders if it is not asking too much that we expect the artist not only expose a societal disease, but cure it.  Then she writes

Walker Percy, another Southern novelist and my muse in such matters, said that the artist's job is to be a diagnostician -- "to give the sickness a name, to render the unspeakable speakable." That "art is making; morality is doing."

"This is not to say that art, fiction, is not moral in the most radical sense -- if it is made right. But if you write a novel with the goal of trying to make somebody do right, you're writing a tract -- which may be an admirable enterprise, but it is not literature."

you're writing a tract -- which may be an admirable enterprise, but it is not literature.

I often find myself greatly moved by works of art.  Last month  I wrote a diary, reasonably well received here, on the end of Abby Mann's Judgment at Nuremberg.  In Judgment  In it I not only explored the words Mann penned for two scenes, the declaration of judgment, and the visit of the American presiding judge to the cell of the former German judge who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, but also the famous speech of Shylock in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."  I then offered these words:

Great art is not necessarily history.  But it may provide an even deeper truth.

Sometimes we only begin to truly understand a problem through a work of art.  Yes, I am of the generation that lived through the Civil Rights era.  We saw on television, perhaps read in newspapers, of the events.  We saw the angry mobs in Little Rock.  We read about bombings of buses and of synagogues.  One might argue that those images and words began to change our understanding, calling our attention to what was happening.  We saw the images of troops in Little Rock and later at the University of Mississippi for James Meredith.  George Corley Wallace became the political face of opposition to integration, even if the filibusters first of Strom Thurmond and later of Robert Byrd did more to retard addressing this shame of our nation.

And yet we did not fully understand.  I knew very few Southern whites.  I remember in 1959 a boy in my cabin at National Music Camp in Interlochen from Jackson, Mississippi, and another from Alexandria Louisiana.  We challenged them, trying to understand how they could be part of a system. John, from Mississippi, sidestepped the question - he and his family simply offered us reproductions of Confederate money, not to bribe us per se, but in the hopes of having us accept John as simply coming from a different culture.  Eddie, the young man from Louisiana, was far more blunt -  he told us to get real, that we didn't treat our Niggers in the North all that much differently than they did in the South.  In the almost all white environment of Interlochen in the 1950s, his words cut us in a way we did not expect.

Harper Lee's magnificent novel appeared half a century ago, after that summer in Interlochen.  I remember my parents bought it, and I read it -  I was in my early teens, but had had a card for the adult library for several years, so my parents allowed me to read it.  The film with Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning role of Atticus Finch came out only two years later.   I remember my experience of both the book and the film.  Both were told from the point of view of a young girl, Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch.  I was not all that sympathetic to girls, even though I was of an age where I was exploring my feelings towards them.  Yet in reading the book I found myself drawn into her world, her perceptions, her attempting to make sense of the things she was encountering.  Good literature has that effect.  Great literature places one within the emotions she experiences, and one begins to see as she does.  As I did with the book.

I liked the film, but the book had moved me more.  My most powerful moment of the film is visual, near the end.  I think it is relevant to the power of art, to the point Parker is making, the Percy makes, about how literature is different.  Jem, Scout's brother, was attacked, and in the film we see intimations of violence which save him, but not the action nor the actor.  Later, in the Finch home, from the shadows Atticus brings out the hero of that moment, Boo Radley, played by Robert Duvall.  There is no doubt that under the law Boo has committed a crime, but the Sheriff Heck Tate and Atticus quietly agree that no purpose would be served by bringing chargers against Radley, because of his ways.  

Is Boo Radley the mockingbird whose killing - or even being put on trial - would be a sin?  Probably not, but Harper Lee challenges our thinking.  And it is not improper for us to wonder, to consider Boo Radley and his actions in light of the meaning of the title.  

There is another scene from the movie that I clearly remember.  There is a rabid dog that needs to be shot.  Atticus Finch is considered the best shot in town, and asked to do it.  Only if I remember correctly, he does not have the necessary weapon, which is provided him by Sheriff Heck Tate.  

Let's suppose for a moment my memory of the film is incorrect.  Does it matter?  Is not what is important how that film had an impact upon me, the meaning I was able to derive from seeing it?  Yes, I am back to a  discussion in freshman English in 1963 (about which you will soon read), ironically only a year or after seeing the movie.

I am somewhat bemused by Orwell's criticism of Dickens, given that Orwell's impact upon our thinking is far greater from his writing of Animal Farm and 1984 than it is from his superbly writing Homage to Catalonia.  

I also remember a heated discussion in freshman English at Haverford, in a class led by a young assistant professor, William Smith, who did not long remain at the college.  I'm not even sure what book we were studying when the discussion erupted.  I do remember our dispute:  which was the more important measure of an author, what he intended in writing his book or what we derived from reading it?  I remember Smith telling us that when someone writes something to move us to a specific course of action, one could fairly describe that as pornography.   You might not agree with that particular framing, yet still understand the point he was trying to make.  It is not dissimilar from Percy's distinction between a tract and literature.

I have always been drawn to the arts, initially most of all with music, then over time increasingly by literature, by drama (both stage and film, and even in reading it), by painting, sculpture, dance, . . .  I often find myself moved in ways I did not expect.

Parker says that Atticus Finch is trying to teach his children, his daughter in particular, that the people in their town with the racism that is part of their environment, are not bad, merely misguided. She places this in the context of the deeply felt religion which includes the lesson of hating the sin while loving the sinner.  Perhaps one might be like Gladwell and wish for a more forceful statement - or action - by the novel's protagonist.  Parker writes

Sometimes truth is better received through a reflex of recognition than by a blow to the head.
   Literature enables us to recognize.  It, like other forms of art, both draws us in and challenges our understanding.  In so doing it meets us where we are and demands we travel further.   Which is why the greatness of art is its ability to speak to people at different points on that journey, even if the creator of the art could not at the time of its creation know who those people would be or where on that journey they might find themselves.  

I began with the final two paragraphs of Parker's piece.  Just before comes a paragraph in which she describes her own encounter with the book:  

My own recollection of the book, which I first read as a child, was that it was full of hard and ugly truths. The story, because it was revealed through the eyes of another child, caused me to understand injustice as no textbook or lecture ever could. Such is the power and mystery of literature.

I read the book as an early adolescent.  It drew me in.  It helped me understand more fully my revulsion towards racism.  That was a process that for me began on a winter trip to Miami Beach in December 1956, when at the airport in Miami I first saw the signs that indicated the Jim Crow nature of the South.  It would continue through the events of subsequent years, first by watching television and reading newspapers.  In the summer of 1963 I became active in Civil Rights demonstrations, including coming to Washington on August 28 of that year.  That was after reading the book, and seeing the movie.  It was before that discussion in Freshman English.

I think Parker is right on her assessment of Harper Lee as a mockingbird singing her heart out.  Her song affected this nation deeply.  Gladwell can criticize, but I think he misses the point of literature, and the powerful impact Lee's novel had, precisely because she did not make Atticus Finch a person in total conflict with the society in which he lived.  Call his actions insufficient by our standards today, but recognize that for the culture in which he was living he demonstrated - to his family and to those who read the book - a quiet courage that in some ways challenged us even more deeply than a more forceful and oppositional character might have done.

After all, the change that was taking place in the South - and there was change occurring - was as much the result of the quiet resolve of some whites, who taught their children what was wrong, who did what they could to ameliorate the worst of segregation while remaining in loving contact with their neighbors.

Some went further. Some risked political and personal futures to speak out more forcefully.

But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson in court.  Thinks of all those despised and hated throughout our history who did not have someone willing to step up and defend them.   He taught Scout and Jem what right and wrong.   He tried to remain in contact with neighbors he viewed as misguided, because, as Parker writes, Sometimes truth is better received through a reflex of recognition than by a blow to the head.

To kill a mockingbird is a sin

To attack a creator of art because s/he does not make the argument the way we would is also a sin.  If we disagree with the artist we have every right to criticize.  Far better would be to create our own work of art, that makes the point as we believe it should be made.

I am not a creative artist.  I do not write literature, and not even that much music.  I have been a performing artist, acting and playing music, singing and dancing.  Even much of my writing is less creative than it is responsive and analytical, as this piece responds to Parker and to the work in question.

Each year we have mockingbirds on our property.  I can remember when we had our dog - if Elspeth got too close to the tree with the nest, one of the mockingbirds would dive bomb her to protect their young.

It is a pleasure to hear the mockingbird's song.  They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us

The great creators of art, of literature are mockingbirds.  Harper Lee is a mockingbird, who offered one great song and left it to resound through our memories, our lives, our society.

It is a Sunday morning.  I have writing to do.  It is analytical. It is advocacy.  It may speak to some, but not with the power of a good novel.  I am not a mockingbird.  

Which is perhaps why I so value the mockingbirds and their songs.

To kill a mockingbird is a sin. . .

Thank you Harper Lee for teaching us a powerful lesson, one that still speaks to us, even half a century later.


Originally posted to teacherken on Sun May 01, 2011 at 05:38 AM PDT.


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