Some Perhaps Contrarian Thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird upon the Passing of Harper Lee
With news of her passing, we now accept that we live in a world without Miss Nelle Harper Lee. Although sad, it won't change much for most of us. In some ways, Miss Nelle's been gone for a long time. After the dizzying success of To Kill a Mockingbird, she tucked herself away in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and wrote no more. Yes, we heard that she occasionally made secret trips to New York, and there walked incognito through its bustling streets as some sort of literary ghost but, for the most part, she had long since gone away for reasons that only she would ever know, but about which the rest of us are free to speculate.
My speculation is that Harper Lee became a recluse, not for any contrived purpose, but because she had an instinctive sense that to add anything to her masterpiece, even her opinions about things that had nothing to do with it, might disrupt the sense and power of the story as she told it. In effect, she allowed herself to be a blank canvas on which we could paint our own portrait of Mockingbird's author, thus not clouding in any way the text itself except in the manner in which we personally understood what it meant. Yes, yes, I am aware of Go Set a Watchman but I believe, as long as her mind was clear, Lee wouldn't have allowed that book to be published. Like most authors, I have books in my filing cabinet that require more work to get ready for publication than I think they're worth, or I have come to accept were part of my growth as a writer, their value only to me and not to my readers. Watchman, I believe, was never meant for the rest of us.
With her passing, a ripple in time most of us will not feel beyond a vague knowledge of the fact, we are still left with that most important thing Harper Lee accomplished, the writing and publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. For years to come, academics will dissect this classic novel and try to determine why and how it is an important part of literature and where it fits in the lexicon of books that define our civilization. This is well and proper. After all, according to most of its acolytes, To Kill a Mockingbird is a brilliant book about social injustice. Perhaps, but I take a somewhat contrarian view. I think the brilliance of Harper Lee's novel was that it managed to accomplish the most astonishing and improbable deed: It made the vast majority of Americans who read it, and indeed the citizens of the world who turned its pages, come to love characters who were Southern white people.
Ever since the Civil War, Southern white folks have been the objects of a certain amount of derision from people who reside outside the boundaries first established by the Mason-Dixon Line. Indeed, it has been perfectly acceptable, and often considered clever, to refer to and think of white Southern males as rednecks, meaning rough, angry, and bigoted, and white Southern females as belles, charming, perhaps, but ultimately vacuous. Their proclivities, amusing and frightening all at once, are evident in such matters as their outrageous affection for the Confederate flag, their tendency to be Bible thumpers, their honey-dripping mannerisms, and their general love of firearms. To those of us who were raised in the South, it's just the Southern way and certainly doesn't define our souls. To outsiders, however, our souls and even our hearts are indeed defined by these things and in a way that isn't good. Yet, in To Kill A Mockingbird, the people who embrace Southern civilization are not only good but even admirable.
If a writer wanted to do it, I think it would seem an impossible task to write a novel that would refute the stereotypes placed upon Southerners for nearly two centuries, but Miss Nelle did it with astonishing ease. There are people out there right now who are afraid to set foot in Alabama lest they be set upon by a mob of cross-burners, and think General Robert E. Lee the worst rascal who ever strapped on a sword, and also think every southern politician is a George Wallace of some stripe. Yet, these same people swoon over Harper Lee's novel and have even been known to name their children after its characters! With her remarkable talent, she managed to make heroic the most unlikely of folks, the people of Maycomb, Alabama, the progeny of those who fought for the Confederate States of America.
How did Miss Nelle accomplish this remarkable feat? She did it primarily by allowing her readers, as Atticus Finch recommended, to walk around the streets of Maycomb and in the shoes of its people. In Mockingbird, even the bigots are made understandable and nearly sympathetic, as when the Jewish store owner reflects about that time when the KKK came to his house only to be reminded by him that he'd sold them their sheets, thus causing the hooded mob to sheepishly slink off without doing any harm. Bob Ewell, an ignorant, perhaps incestuous creep, is presented ultimately as a victim of the society in which he was raised and, although we shed no tears when he is killed, we are made to understand his impotent rage by having to wear his ragged clothes, feel his empty pockets, and suffer beneath the grinding, pitiless pity of his white betters. In contrast, black people in Miss Nelle's world were downtrodden but psychologically the freest people in town because they were allowed to be who they were without the weight of societal opinion. After all, they already knew that opinion and couldn't do anything, good or bad, to change it.
By resting awhile with Harper Lee on the porches of Maycomb, and watching her people go by and even entering into their company, we begin to understand their perspective, that perhaps it's best to take what life has given us, mind our own business, be brave when it counts, but not to do anything too outrageous which might upset the communities on both sides of the track. That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't work to lift our heads high enough to hear the angels sing. Yes, that's in To Kill A Mockingbird, too. You just have to feel between the lines.
And that, I think, is the genius of the entire enterprise. The author of this classic novel made us feel and care for a people who, if only observed from the outside, might otherwise be thought of as nothing but cornpone racist rascals. Atticus Finch, a graduate of the University of Alabama, is noble because he acted nobly when put to the test. Before that? The jury is out. He's nice to his children, is kind to his black housekeeper, takes care of the poor whites who need his help, but we're not sure what else he believes deep in his heart past a wish, we suspect, that Alabama would win every football game it ever played. Nonetheless, when given the task to defend a black man, he takes it on even if, as we learn, it will be to the detriment of his reputation. That's why the black preacher stands when Atticus passes, not because Scout's father has defended an innocent black man, but because the preacher knows he has risked the scorn of his white peers. Atticus has heard the angels sing, although they may be far away and not exactly singing the chorus we hope we're hearing. Sheriff Tate confesses he's a bad man but he, too, lifts his head to hear the angels sing as he recommends a crime be ignored because otherwise a greater crime, this one moral and not of the law, will be committed. All of Maycomb ultimately hear the angels sing, even those miscreants who found guilty an innocent man. Through Scout's telling, we sense their shame and understand that the jurists perhaps finally understood that when they found Tom Robinson guilty, they also found themselves guilty and thus began their long, hard road toward redemption. Our personal discovery, through the tale as it is told, is that we are all on that same long and hard road, whether we are from the South or anywhere else, and thus the novel's true value.
So goodbye, Miss Nelle, and thank you for the gift of To Kill A Mockingbird. May your novel forever remind us that people are people, even when they're not us, and that we should always try to walk around in their shoes before making a judgment about them. You have done your job, the one you were meant to do, and I trust now you are resting easy as you should.