When my mother returned from a visit to the United States in 1960, she brought with her a book that I still possess. Its title was To Kill a Mockingbird. I also have a paperback version published in 1974. Blazoned across its ugly plain orange cover is the fact that the novel had by then sold 15 million copies. The fiftieth anniversary edition, published (not surprisingly) in 2010, claimed a total of 30 million copies. This claim might raise the hackles of those who think that literature is, or ought to be, a secret garden to the lock of whose entrance only the elect should have the key: but, as Dr. Johnson wrote in his otherwise not altogether laudatory biography of Thomas Gray, “In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of SubTLETY and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” Johnson wrote this only thirty years after Gray published his Elegy, but fifty-five years have now passed since the publication of Harper Lee’s book; and, even if I have serious reservations about To Kill a Mockingbird, there is no reason (I think) why novelistic honors should be awarded differently from the poetical.
The fact that Harper Lee, though yet alive, has published nothing else in all this time raised some suspicions about the book, even the unworthy one that it was not really she who had written it but rather her close friend from childhood, Truman Capote. Personally, though, I have always liked (and therefore been inclined to believe in) the idea of the writer of a single book of exceptional appeal who chose to remain silent thereafter because she had nothing further to say. There could be no greater manifestation of artistic and intellectual integrity than that: a true believer in the dictum of Charles Caleb Colton (a Church of England clergyman who, like most of mankind, was better at giving advice than at taking it, especially his own) that “When you have nothing to say, say nothing”—or perhaps in the advice of the Duke of Wellington to a new Member of Parliament, “Don’t quote Latin, say what you have to say and sit down.”
I was therefore fractionally disappointed to learn that another book by this author is soon to be published: the news tarnished my personal mythology of her, a mythology constructed, as such mythologies usually are, in complete ignorance of the truth of the matter. The new book, Go Set a Watchman, was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird; and I confess to having hoped that its publication would be found illicit, contrary to the author’s wishes, so that I could retain my conception of her as a person of the probity of Atticus, the hero of her first, and for long her only, book. The new, or newly published, book is unlikely to equal To Kill a Mockingbird; and if it does not, and if it falls much below its level, it will confirm suspicions that Harper Lee is not after all that very rare and much-to-be cherished creature, a one-book author who publishes only one book, but a member of a much commoner literary species, a one-book author who publishes more than one book.
Re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird after forty years, I found much in it to admire and enjoy. The portrayal of the small town in southern Alabama, Maycomb, during three of the Depression years is both charming and convincing. Although she has denied it in one of her few post-publication pronouncements, Maycomb is based on the town in which she grew up, Monroeville, which at the time of her childhood had a population of about 1,500.
In the book, Maycomb-Monroeville is a town sunk in economic but above all in social and moral stagnation, full of snobbery and pretension, a fine laboratory for the dissection of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. Perhaps it was the slowness of life there and the intellectually manageable scale of human interactions that intensified Harper Lee’s no doubt innate tendency to observe closely and to note the small but significant phenomena by which she was surrounded. To be observant of all about her was her only form of distraction or entertainment, which is why a childhood that children of today might despise as deprived because of its lack of sophisticated electronic appurtenances was actually extremely rich, much richer in one sense (though much poorer in another) than most contemporary childhoods. And it is surely remarkable that a small town like Monroeville should have been the nursery of two authors of the stature of Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Outwardly dull and stagnant provincial life is often the stimulant of literature—provided there is somewhere a metropolis willing and able to appreciate it.
The narrative voice of the book is artfully contrived to be that both of an adult looking back on her childhood and of the child herself. “Somehow it was hotter then,” says the adult narrator, a phrase that is instinct with melancholy, the melancholy of the fact that humans rarely appreciate their situation as they live it, but only in retrospect. For many people, wisdom after the event is the only kind of wisdom that they ever achieve, and meaning is something that becomes apparent long after the events to which it is attached.
Part of my pleasure in re-reading the book was derived from strange coincidences with some of my own experiences in England and South Africa. Such coincidences help a reader to see, or at any rate to imagine, universality in what he reads: and those of us who read for instruction as well as pleasure are always on the lookout for universality.
In the first part of the book, the narrator Scout (whose real name is Jean Louise), her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill invest the “Radley place three doors to the south” with a malign mystery. This is a house to which no one in Maycomb is ever invited, which is all the more remarkable because everyone knows everyone else there. Its shutters are always closed, and there is seldom any light from it. The garden is neglected and overgrown, the house dilapidated. Locked up in it is “Boo” Radley, the son of old Mr. Radley. “Boo” has disgraced the family by a minor act of delinquency in adolescence and is never allowed out of the house again. Because of its isolation the children imagine that “inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. . . . A baseball hit into the Radley yard was a lost ball and no questions asked.” For one of the children to approach the house and touch it was constructed by them into a feat of the most audacious daring.
“The Radley Place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house.” This reminded me powerfully of the house three doors down from ours when I was a child that also stood on a curve, though a gentle one, surrounded by a large unkempt garden. No matter how sunny or hot the day, the garden was always dark and cold-looking. The house was uncared for, unpainted, and dilapidated. Inside lived a very old woman who never came out and was clearly a witch. We always hurried past her house in case, for once, she did come out; you never knew with witches. We scared ourselves stiff by occasional mild trespasses on her property (we had no compunction in ringing other people’s doorbells and running away, which we considered the height of wit); it was so dangerous because we imagined her as some kind of spider spinning her web in which to catch children.
She was just an old widow, of course, eking out the end of her life, unable to pay for, or perhaps uninterested in, the upkeep of her property. But we wanted to invest our lives with fairy-tale drama, and in any case had no alternative explanation of her conduct. It never occurred to us that we might render her service, much less that our conception of her was cruel.
The children’s investment of the Radley Place with malevolence seems to me, then, to be finely done and true to my experience at least. But, more importantly for the book, the disdain of the white population of Maycomb for the black, casual at best and vicious at worst, seems to me well-observed and -described: and, difficult as it may be now to imagine it, not at all exaggerated. In South Africa I heard whites speak to each other in a most derogatory way about blacks in general, in the presence of their black servants whom they knew to understand their language; no expression of complete contempt could have been more eloquent.
I also experienced the almost pathetic gratitude of an oppressed people for any manifestation of respect or liking for them, or of minimally decent behavior towards them. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the blacks in the courtroom stand when Atticus, who has just defended Tom Robinson vigorously and decisively but unsuccessfully against a false and malicious charge of rape, goes by, such is their grateful respect for him. The next day Atticus receives a large quantity of such humble presents as very poor people are able to give. And when the children, Scout and Jem, are taken by Calpurnia, the family’s black cook, to the church for blacks, they are treated virtually ex officio as very special.
These are similar to experiences I had in South Africa and in other parts of the continent. At a hospital there in a black township in which I worked, I attended the black nurses’ graduation ceremony. The graduation was an occasion of immense local pride, for a nursing qualification was highly regarded; and my presence was welcomed with a celerity and generosity which made me feel ashamed. I was the only white who turned up for the ceremony, though white doctors worked in the hospital, and I was at once accorded the place of honor though I knew that I had done nothing special to deserve it other than be white. Refusal of the place of honor would have offended, of course, and so I took it, instead of a black clergyman scheduled for it. Did this not speak of a deep, aching longing to be recognized as fully human by the whites, to be taken seriously as a human being? What was so moving about this was that there was absolutely no resentment in it, though I was not so naïve as to suppose that resentment could not be found anywhere in the township, or that it could not be provoked, developed, exacerbated, or taken advantage of.
On another occasion I drove the black nurse in my clinic home to her house in the black township. I asked her to sit beside me in the car, rather than in the rear, which she found remarkable: it would have been enough by itself to give me a local reputation as a kaffir-boetie, the Afrikaans equivalent of nigger-lover, with precisely the same connotation, kaffir-boetie being literally a kaffir-brother, a brother of blacks who were contemptuously known as kaffirs. (“And if you can’t call a kaffir a kaffir,” the mother-in-law of the man who employed me wanted plaintively to know, “who can you call a kaffir?”—it evidently being a basic human need to have someone to look down on, despise, and use insulting words about.) In the context, a white sitting in the back of a car driven by a black would have been a man with his chauffeur; but a black in the back of a car driven by a white would have been as good as chattel. The nurse, who knew I was British, concluded en route that I must be a member of the British Royal Family to act in this fashion, for only someone of the highest social status would dare do such a thing or be sure enough of his position not to feel it endangered by such a gesture of equality. The more liberal members of Maycomb’s white population (mea culpa, I almost called it a community) would have understood the reasoning behind the nurse’s seemingly absurd conclusion.
The episode in the book in which Tom Robinson, wrongly convicted but now incarcerated, is reported to have been shot seventeen times while allegedly attempting to escape has disturbing parallels with certain recent events:
Oh yes, the guards called him to stop. They fired a few shots in the air, then to kill. They got him just as he went over the fence. . . . Seventeen bullet holes in him. They didn’t have to shoot him that much.
In view of the blatantly wrongful conviction, the jury having disregarded the evidence entirely (though only after comparatively long deliberation, itself regarded by Atticus and others as a sign of progress from summary conviction of any black accused of anything), we have no confidence that Tom Robinson really was trying to escape. But if he was trying to escape, why shoot him seventeen times rather than once or twice in the leg? This is not melodrama, alas; this is social reality (or a part of it, as all social reality is).
Interestingly, the blacks of Maycomb hardly react to the news of Tom Robinson’s death, which has struck the reader as an extrajudicial execution. They are too dignified, decent, sensible, and Christian to riot or even to protest. The country has certainly changed.
It is in her depiction of the blacks of Maycomb that the ultimate soft-centeredness of the book makes itself first felt. True, Atticus says at the trial in his closing address that “You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white.” (It is interesting, incidentally, that at the time “Negro”was a term of respect.) But as portrayed in the book, blacks are all wise, friendly, God-fearing, generous, honest, uxorious, faithful folks. They live their Christianity, whereas the whites use it only as a stick to beat others with. They seem to be happy rather than unhappy: certainly not as unhappy as the poor whites. If the purpose of social and political arrangements is to bring about a happy contented existence for people of good character, any disturbance of those arrangements in Maycomb at least would seem more to the benefit of the whites, who live in a permanent state of petty irritation and conflict with one another, than to that of the blacks. On this view of the life of blacks in southern Alabama, it should have been the whites singing “Let My People Go.”
Now of course Harper Lee was writing in 1960, when racial equality had by no means been conceded, and when it was still perfectly acceptable in certain quarters to pronounce that blacks were all but a different species, at best hewers of wood and drawers of water, and inclined or condemned by their nature to depravity in need, therefore, of permanent repression. She must have wanted to counteract and shame the still widely held prejudice of the time, and this was a highly honorable thing to do.
But a novel is not a political speech or pamphlet, and so such sentimentality deforms the book and casts doubt on its reliability. For those alert to the implausibility of the portrayal of the black population, the suspicion of emotional manipulation arises. We are being told directly what to feel.
This is not the only instance of emotional manipulation in the book. There is, for example, the episode of Mrs. Dubose’s death. Mrs. Dubose is a nasty old lady, intolerant of children and a ferocious racist. She disapproves strongly of Atticus’s decision to accept the defense of Tom Robinson and insults him publicly in his children’s hearing as they walk by her house. Jem, to defend his father’s honor and wreak revenge, goes into Mrs. Dubose’s garden and decapitates all her flowers.
To punish Jem for his behavior, and to teach him a lesson in manners, the ever-courteous Southern gentleman Atticus forces him to read Ivanhoe to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon for a month. Scout, the narrator, accompanies him though she is not obliged by her father to do so. Mrs. Dubose lies in bed while Jem reads to her. She sets her alarm clock for when the reading session ends. The children notice that she sets the alarm to later and later times, and that she gradually grows increasingly distracted during the session and that shortly before the alarm is due to go off she appears to have some kind of “fit:”
Her head moved slowly from side to side. From time to time she would open her mouth wide, and I could see her tongue undulate faintly. Cords of saliva would collect on her lips; she would draw them in, then open her mouth again.
There is a final session, when she tells the children that they need come no more.
A little over a month later, Atticus is called to Mrs. Dubose. She dies in his presence and then, on his return home, he explains Mrs. Dubose’s conduct to Jem (evidently also in the presence of Scout, who reports it all):
“Son, don’t you know what those fits were? Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict. She took it as a pain-killer for years. The doctor put her on it. She’d have spent the rest of her life on it and died without so much agony, but she was too contrary. . . . She said she was going to leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody. Jem, when you’re as sick as she was, it’s all right to take anything to make it easier, but it wasn’t all right for her. She said she meant to break herself of it before she died, and that’s what she did.”
All of the above is pharmacologically very implausible for a number of reasons unnecessary to go into. It is also implausible that children as young as Jem and Scout would have any idea about morphine addiction and withdrawal and therefore Atticus’s explanation would be no explanation at all for them. Does this implausibility matter in a work of fiction? Perhaps not, if a rather syrupy moral were not about to be pointed. Atticus says to Jem:
“You know, she was a great lady. . . . I wanted you to see something about her—I wanted you to see what real courage was. . . . She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
And since Atticus is a person of the utmost moral probity and enlightenment, we are being manipulated into accepting the novel’s general point, that “Most people are [real nice] when you finally see them,” which is the last line but three of the whole book.
But is Mrs. Dubose real nice in any sense? Not if we pause for a moment. Does her illness and her addiction excuse the vile things she says to the children about their father and her general rudeness to them? Do all ill people and addicts behave like this? Has she a right to be unpleasant to children as young as eleven and eight and subject them to horrible sights every afternoon for an entire month so that she might free herself of a drug that it would be perfectly reasonable for her to take to the last moment of her life? If she is courageous, it is at somebody else’s expense, exploitatively so. She is not a great lady, she is a great egotist, and there is little in her character to counterbalance this defect.
Are “Most people real nice when finally you see them”? It would be real nice to think so. But I am irresistibly reminded of an obituary I once read in the Lancet. There was a little picture of the most sour-countenanced man I have ever seen. The obituarist wrote:
Though not immediately likeable, those who knew him well detected many sterling qualities.
And this in a journal dedicated to the principle of nihil nisi bonum!
Harper Lee has said, again in one of her rare pronouncements, that To Kill a Mockingbird obviously points to traditional Christian virtues such as tolerance and loving-kindness, and so it does. These are the nice, warm virtues in which we can all wrap ourselves comfortably. But Christianity doesn’t hold only that tolerance and loving-kindness are good, nor does it hold that most men are born good or even nice. It holds that they are born with original sin, against whose effects they have to struggle for all their lives, being doomed not entirely to succeed and therefore being in need of Grace. The problem with Atticus is that he seems so effortlessly good that there is no struggle in him, though he is certainly brave. To Kill a Mockingbird, for all its considerable virtues, many of which I have not enumerated, encourages us by identifying with him so strongly to bathe in the pleasantly warm waters of our own generosity of spirit and our self-regard. Perhaps that is part of the reason, though only a part, for its enduring popularity.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 10, on page 16
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com