Mocking Mockingbird

I read the novel To Kill a Mockingbird (and saw the movie) at least two dozen times over the years, not because I wanted to, but rather because, as a high school English teacher, I had to. I thought the book boring and obvious, although somewhat less boring than the movie. Thus I assumed that its reputation had more to do with political correctness than literary merit.

Allen Barra, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Georgia had Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers; Mississippi had William Faulkner and Eudora Welty; Louisiana inspired the major works of Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams. Alabama had. . .

Well, while Zora Neale Hurston and Walker Percy were born in Alabama, those two great writers didn’t stick around my home state for long. And as for Harper Lee—Alabama born, raised and still resident—she doesn’t really measure up to the others in literary talent, but we like to pretend she does.

Ms. Lee is at the head of the Southern class in one big way, however: The numbers are imprecise, but according to a 1988 report by the National Council of Teachers of English, her novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was required reading in three-quarters of America’s high schools…

One estimate credits the book with over 30 million copies sold—many, no doubt, due to the enduring popularity of the hugely successful 1962 film version, described by The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael as “part eerie Southern gothic and part Hollywood self-congratulation for its enlightened racial attitudes.” (Gregory Peck’s Atticus, Kael wrote, was “virtuously dull,” surely a phrase that can be accurately applied to Ms. Lee’s model.)…

Atticus [the character based on the author’s father] is a repository of cracker-barrel epigrams. He actually seems to believe the fairy tale about the Ku Klux Klan that he tells Scout: “Way back about nineteen-twenty, there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare.” They gathered one night in front of a Jewish friend of Finch’s, Sam Levy, and “Sam made ’em so ashamed of themselves they went away.”

It’s impossible that anyone who grew up in Alabama in the mid-1930s, when the book is set, would believe that story, but it’s a sugar-coated myth of Alabama’s past that millions have come to accept.

In all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained. One hundred years from now, critics will still be arguing about the real nature of the relationship between Tom and Huck, or why Gatsby gazed at that green light at the end of the dock across the harbor. There is no ambiguity in “To Kill a Mockingbird”; 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. As Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 story in The New Yorker, the book acts as “an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious.”

It’s time to stop pretending that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is some kind of timeless classic that ranks with the great works of American literature. Its bloodless liberal humanism is sadly dated, as pristinely preserved in its pages as the dinosaur DNA in “Jurassic Park.”…

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