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Don’t kill “Mockingbird”: A defense of the novel, on its 50th anniversary

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Chuck Twardy

I named my sibling cats Scout and Jem. So I might have some trouble being objective about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Some could see my name-bestowing honor as symptomatic of a sentimentality perfectly in keeping with its object. Published 50 years ago this summer, Harper Lee’s lone book is one of the world’s most beloved novels and the source of an equally treasured film. Almost from publication it’s been a staple of American education, a ritual study of righteousness that has launched countless earnest essays on the nobility of walking in someone’s shoes before making judgments.

The New Yorker’s September 1960 review called the book, which would win the next Pulitzer Prize, “skilled, unpretentious, and totally ingenious.” But twice in recent years the magazine has gone out of its way to swipe at Lee. In 2006, Thomas Mallon reviewed an unauthorized biography of Lee and filleted its subject’s one key accomplishment. Mallon said she had “allowed the war between good and evil to be … a simple matter,” emblemized by the “plaster saint” Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem’s lawyer father.

Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird

Last year, Malcolm Gladwell took to The New Yorker’s pages to shatter that icon, by ridiculing Atticus’ doomed defense of Tom Robinson: “His response is to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell. A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama.”

Other critics have sniped over the years, too. A common complaint is the narration by Scout, who advances in age from 6 to 8 during her tale. “Lee’s narrative voice is a wildly unstable compound, a forced mixture—sometimes in the same sentence—of Scout’s very young perspective and a fully adult one,” Mallon griped.

But I’ve always loved Scout’s hybrid voice. Critic William T. Going described it as a “modification of a [Henry] Jamesian technique of allowing the story to be seen only through the eyes of a main character but to be understood by … [an] omniscient intelligence.” It’s savvier than that, however. The precocious Scout, alarmed about how callow and hypocritical adults are, endures a poignant adult melancholy about the childhood she has yet to lose. “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once,” reads the book’s epigraph, from Charles Lamb, and adjudicating is Lee’s persistent theme. Scout and Jem and Dill perform playlets modeling adult behavior, to work out what it must be about. As Scout puzzles through life’s inconsistencies, she can’t bring herself to trust adults with her concerns.

After the Robinson trial, back in school, she hears Miss Gates rant about the evil Hitler but remembers that the teacher, leaving the courthouse that fateful night, had exulted in Robinson’s wrongful conviction. She tries to bring it up with her father, but “I went away, not sure that I could explain to Atticus what was on my mind, not sure that I could clarify what was only a feeling.” Instead, she consults Jem, who lashes out at her for reviving the painful memory. He’s a couple of years older, and Scout, though she never says it directly, can see where this adulthood thing is headed.

HarperCollins releases a 50th-anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird next week. It’s worth rereading, to hear Scout’s tormented, adultlike voice again and to recover its proto-’60s suspicion of grown-up behavior. The 1962 film probably sealed most of the book’s iconic, sentimental value. While Horton Foote’s screenplay was sterling, Robert Mulligan’s film was in some ways more sentimental than the book. I always tear up when Frank Overton, as Sheriff Tate, tells Gregory Peck’s Atticus, “I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir.” It has an air of catharsis, but it’s not clear how Tate’s bleak dismissal of Atticus’s concerns aids that purging. In the book, though, the moment twists together the story’s thematic and narrative threads, all the adult lies about race and class, and ties a neat ribbon on adult life’s compromise with truth. That it’s the right thing to do hardly matters.

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