By now loyal Early Bird readers will know my affection for To Kill A Mockingbird, so I couldn’t resist, after seeing a recap on Jezebel, responding to Allen Barra’s assertion in The Wall Street Journal that Harper Lee “doesn’t really measure up to the others in literary talent, but we like to pretend she does” and her Pulitzer-winning work is “virtuously dull”.
Well, I never!
Out of everyone I’ve ever spoken to about To Kill A Mockingbird, only one person said they didn’t like it, but she also didn’t finish the book, so she missed the part of the book I think is most poignant: the final paragraphs where Scout recounts the events of the summer from Boo Radley’s front porch, citing her father Atticus’ wise words that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes.” For Scout, “Just standing on the Radley porch was enough,” and I think that is one of the most beautiful pieces of imagery that brings the story full circle.
Atticus is the quintessential beloved father figure, and beacon of “all the best lines”, who, funnily enough, Lee crafted to oppose the attitudes of her own father, who allegedly “once remonstrated a preacher in the family’s hometown… for sermonising on racial justice”. Barra mocks Atticus’ juvenile explanation of the Ku Klux Klan (he is speaking to a CHILD, where a certain amount of sensitivity is required) and his dialogue, as seeming to have been written “to be quoted in high-school English papers”. God knows I had a field day with quotes from the book in my Year 11 English Literature essays, and perhaps the reason I feel so affectionately towards Atticus is that he reminds me of my grandfather, who passed away several days before I started Year 11. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Atticus could be representative of the father figure I never had.
For Mockingbird’s haters, there is the defence that it is a novel for children (Barra quotes “fellow Southerner” and author Flannery O’Connor on her observation of To Kill A Mockingbird: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”) something that I was not aware of until reading the Jezebel article, which should say something about Lee’s writing skills (or my reading skills?).
Nonetheless, I stand by my belief that Mockingbird is one of the best books ever written. Barra might say that, “In all good novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity… There is no ambiguity… at the end of the book , we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad.” But I think there is some moral ambiguity: was it right of Atticus to “collaborate with the local sheriff to ‘obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbour…’”? And, as Jezebel asks, “Is Atticus’ evisceration of Mayella Ewell permissible because she is making a false rape claim in the knowledge that it will likely cost an innocent man his life? Is Mrs. Dubose a cranky old racist or ‘the bravest woman I have ever known,’ as Atticus says? Did Boo Radley truly kill Bob Ewell in self-defense? Are Atticus and the sheriff, in their willingness to protect the social status quo, contributing to the system of white male privilege that subjugates women and blacks—and the secrecy on which it depends?
And what did happen to Boo Radley, whom Scout “never saw again”?