Harper Lee is pretty much my hero. Her author bio in the front of To Kill A Mockingbird lists “being alone” as a hobby. She refused most requests for public appearances and interviews from 1964 until her death in 2016. She refused to write an introduction to her world-changing novel, saying: “introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity…. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble.” Basically, she didn’t have time for anyone’s shit, and I respect the hell out of that.
To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and found immediate success – far beyond Lee’s expectations. She thought it would be a short, quiet novel, and hoped only that it would be “treated kindly” by the handful of reviewers she thought might read it. Since then, it has never been out of print. The cover of my edition (published by Arrow Books in 1997) says it has sold over 33 million copies. Best of all, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize – and, despite his best efforts, her buddy Truman Capote could never top that. It is also widely considered to be a contender for that ever-elusive accolade of The Great American Novel.
The story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the height of the Great Depression. The narrator, Scout, is an adult recounting a story from her childhood – events that, funnily enough, bear many similarities to events that actually occurred in Lee’s own hometown (Monroeville, Alabama) during her childhood.
Scout lives with her older brother (Jem), and their widowed lawyer father (Atticus), and they are visited each summer by a young chap called Dill (who, Lee confirmed, was based on her friend Capote). The three children basically run amok around the town, as you could in those days, and they become a bit obsessed with their recluse neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley.
Meanwhile, a local judge assigns papa Atticus a very important case, defending local black man Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.
Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand about me: normally, characters like Atticus – the Upstanding Moral CitizenTM types – piss me right off. I have very little time for martyrs in real life, let alone in fiction. And, yet, I fell immediately head-over-heels in love with this incredible, principled man. His steadiness, his sense of justice, his determination, his honesty… I can see how he has become a kind of real-life folk hero for lawyers in the South (seriously, they’ve got an Atticus Finch Society). I do, of course, take issues with the white saviour trope, and Lee has been rightly (and roundly) criticised for that, but I couldn’t help but admire her regardless. Crafting a character with such moral fortitude, without having them come off as preachy or holier-than-thou, takes a certain kind of mastery – you got to give it to Harper Lee, she fucking nailed it!
Anyway, back to the story: the whole town turns on the Finches, believing them to be “n***er-lovers” (their words, obviously) because Atticus plans to give Tom Robinson a rigorous defence. The community’s feelings intensify when Atticus is able to definitively establish at trial that the accusers are lying – in fact, the white woman (Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of the town drunk) was attempting to seduce Tom Robinson, and she was beaten by her father when he caught her. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented for the defence (Tom has a disability that would prevent him from inflicting the injuries of which he stands accused), the jury still votes to convict.
As if that weren’t heartbreaking enough (literally, I was gripping the book so hard my knuckles turned white), Tom is subsequently killed by prison guards when he attempts to escape. Atticus is really shaken by this turn of events, as he truly believed that he could have had Tom acquitted on appeal. The Finches don’t have much time to grieve, however, because Mayella’s father – Bob Ewell – has it in for Atticus, who he believes made a fool of him at trial.
The climax of the story comes with Bob attacking the children, Scout and Jem… and none other than Boo Radley (that reclusive neighbour they were obsessed with a couple years back) comes to their rescue. Bob cops a knife to the chest, and this is where my personal reading of the story seems to differ from everyone else’s. I was of the impression that the identity of Bob’s true killer was deliberately left a mystery – as I was reading it, I got a real sense of ambiguity about the attribution of blame. Atticus believed that his son, Jem, had stabbed Bob, while the sheriff believed it was Boo Radley, and ultimately they “split the difference” and decided that Bob fell on his own knife. However, it would seem (as best I can tell from reading other reviews online, and watching the film) that everyone else agrees Boo Radley definitely wielded the weapon. Personally, I like my ending better, but horses for courses and all of that.
So, obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is a pretty searing commentary of racial injustice in the Deep South. It also has a lot to say about the loss of innocence. The title itself is a reference to Atticus’s philosophy that it is a “great sin” to kill a mockingbird, because they never harm other creatures and create nothing but beautiful music for all to enjoy. Lee draws on this mockingbird motif a lot, especially when she’s making a point about moral courage and compassion (Tom Robinson, and later Boo Radley, being the metaphorical mockingbirds).
Given its themes and message, the novel has (unsurprisingly) often been compared to other modern American classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say, though, in my (not-very-humble) opinion, it leaves all of them in the dust – it is just so damn good!
I know that everyone comes for the message about racial injustice, but I’m equally here for Lee’s treatment of gender roles. She was years ahead of the world in terms of intersectional feminism, crafting characters (like Scout’s aunt, and her teacher) that demonstrated how class and gender intensify racial prejudice; those characters that most vocally adhere to gender roles of the time also have deeply vested racist and classist attitudes. Scout, on the other hand, flagrantly violates the expectations of “young ladies”, wearing overalls and fighting boys, in the same way that she violates the script for white children by developing a close relationship with her black nanny, attending a black church, and sitting in the black section of the local courthouse during trial.
I mentioned the film a minute ago: I watched it, not long after finishing the book, and it is also bloody fantastic. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, and he won an Oscar for his performance (he probably deserved five of them, but I’m not in charge of these things). Lee was so pleased with the film and his performance that they became lifelong friends. It is definitely one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of any book. There’s another adaptation that sounds really interesting, too: a play performed in Harper Lee’s hometown every year. White male audience members are “selected” for the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial, which is held in the actual town courthouse, and the audience is segregated for the scene. I’m putting that on my bucket list!
Unsurprisingly, given its continuing relevance, To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in pretty much every American high school. Indeed, I remember some classes in my own Australian high school reading it as well. You’d think that its message of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and courage is one that we’d universally agree should be imparted to students… but, incredibly, this has been challenged and removed from classrooms so often that it earned a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books. These challenges are usually based on the use of racial epithets (despite the fact their contextual relevance) and other “profanity”, but sometimes they swing the other way – some parents have actually complained that the racism of the time was not condemned strongly enough by the protagonist and her family. She really couldn’t win, but I get the impression that the haters really didn’t get her down. She was living her best life, out of the spotlight, never reading her own press.
Ultimately, To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t perfect – as I mentioned, Atticus Finch is a white saviour in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a certain overreliance on stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans in characterisation – but it achieved massive cut-through, so perhaps we should consider it a great start for people interested in learning about racial injustice through fiction.
I always swore that I’d never read Go Set A Watchman. It was billed as “the only other novel that Lee ever published”, a sequel of sorts, but it was little more than a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. I have a number of ethical concerns about how it came to see the light of day. Many friends and others close to Lee have publicly confirmed that she was in no fit physical or mental state to satisfactorily consent to its publication; she was experiencing blindness, deafness, and cognitive impairments towards the end of her life, “coincidentally” around the same time that her new lawyer miraculously “discovered” the manuscript in a safe deposit box. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, yet, I loved Lee’s writing so much that I was desperate to read more of it, and I almost wavered… but I can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says it is wrong to read a book that is only accessible due to the exploitation of an elderly woman. So, I’ll satisfy myself with re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, over and over again.
I don’t think it will come as any surprise, but I’m going to say it for the record, anyway: I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity, read it for the cultural capital, read it for nostalgia, read it for the questions it raises – just read it! It is accessible and engaging for all readers, of any age, anywhere in the world.
My favourite Amazon reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird:
- “It’s the book alright. Looks like a book. Feels like a book. It’s all there. Good product.” – judybubble
- “Tequila mocking bird was awful. Complete miss representation, there was not one mocking bird drinking tequila. The book wasn’t even set in Mexico. And who the heck was Boo Radley. So confused and disappointed. If you are going for a good read try green eggs and ham. It has a fitting title and contains both green eggs and ham throughout the thrilling novel.” – Annonymis
- “DO NOT READ, I WAS EXPECTING A GOOD BOOK, YET IT IS FULL OF TYPOS, YES TYPOS, I CANNOT READ THIS GARBAGE. I HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY THIS IS A CLASSIC, YET IT IS MORE CLASSLESS THAN ANYTHING. PAGE 243, HARPER MISSPELLS MAYELLA, SHE SAYS MAYEILA, A BSOLUTELY DISGUSTING.” – S. Super
- “Sickeningly boring, the 4.5 star ave. ignites skeptical feelings of doubt in my fellow man’s ability of sound judgment. I almost dropped out of school because of the torcherous dribble of saliva it seemed to precipitate with each read.” – jesse
- “Author does a completely inadequate job of explaining how to kill one.” – Lauren’s Dad
- “…. Overall, don’t bother with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A better title would if been “To Disappoint A Reader.” Simply terrible.” – Amazon Customer
- “I bought this for my wife. She loves Gregory Peck. Watchedthe movie again the other week ago, and we lasted about 15 minutes, and then switched to Antiques Roadshow or something.FEU” – Freud