The first time I read this book I was in my early forties, a few years back, when my now high school senior son was a sixth or seventh grader and the book was assigned reading for his English class. After he read it, I decided I would too. It felt like I already knew the story well from the repeated references made to the book or movie in popular Alabama culture, and especially amongst the members of the Alabama State Bar. It seemed every lawyer in Alabama fancied himself to be a modern version of Atticus Finch. Some I knew even dressed the part (as it was played by Gregory Peck in the Academy Award-winning movie based on the book, which I’ve never seen), sporting seersucker suits and fine straw hats to their offices; perhaps even the courthouse if ever they went there; and to church on Sundays. It was a bit intriguing, their fascination with Atticus, but I must admit, I’ve never much cared for lawyers, and to me the quirky behavior of a few in trying to imitate Atticus just fortified my ill opinion of all of them.
I don’t know why a book that defined Alabama for so much of the rest of the world; a book that was written by an Alabama native (with probably some help from another Alabama author and native, Truman Capote); a book that was set in Alabama and concerned the condition of life in small-town and rural Alabama in the nineteen thirties, and a book that won a Pulitzer prize, was not included in the reading curriculum of a public school system in Alabama in the nineteen seventies, but there it is. I suspect that the race-relation-tinged subtext of the book may have been the reason for its exclusion. Perhaps it was just because the book referred to blacks as “niggers”, using the term in all its variations and connotations, just as it would have been used in the time and place in which the book was set. I’m pretty sure Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer was excluded for the same reason. The bad memories of the sixties lingered on into the seventies in Birmingham, and my high school, with about a 70/30 white/black ratio, had suffered its fair share of racial troubles, mostly before I arrived. Nothing of the Civil Rights era clashes were discussed in any subject I took in school. It was long after leaving college that I was finally exposed to the pejorative, “Bombingham” in reference to the spate of bombings promulgated by Bob Ewell-like locals in the sixties, particularly of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four black girls attending Sunday school.
My college course in American literature did not include either of To Kill a Mockingbird or Tom Sawyer probably because the instructor assumed that we had already read them in high school. As it turned out, I first read Tom Sawyer during college, on my own, after having been exposed to Twain through a few short stories in the American literature class (The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, etc.). But To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s one and only book. I had no way to know what I was missing of her delightful prose without reading the only book she wrote.
But when I finally got around to reading the book the first time, I hated it. I failed to see its wisdom and significance. I probably wanted to find fault with it because of the overblown carnival atmosphere attendant to reenactments of the fictional trial of Tom Robinson held in Monroeville, Alabama every year. Monroeville, the county seat of Monroe County, Alabama, is Harper Lee’s birthplace and home, and is generally regarded as the town upon which Maycomb is modeled. My disdain probably also had something to do with how little I thought of those lawyers trying to pretend they were Atticus Finch incarnate. All that, and I never got past the idea that someone from the South could think that killing a mockingbird is a sin. They obviously hadn’t had my same experience with mockingbirds. The pesky critters regularly perch in the tree outside my bedroom window trilling away ‘til late in the evening and then starting up again long before sunup the next day. By my lights, killing a mockingbird would be a blessed affair, though I have never done more than harass them with a Daisy BB gun. Lee also probably never had a mockingbird build its nest right next to their back deck such that every time the dog came up to visit, the birds were swooping in to harass the dog away from their fledglings. By my lights, mockingbirds are cantankerous, noisy and mean, not unlike a small blue-jay, except without the pretty colors (being a dingy grey-brown and black), and the world could get along just fine without them. For all that and more, at the first reading, I thought the book stunk.
Then, after several years of intensive intellectual growth aimed at finally trying to gain an education (something quite a bit different than all the training I received in school), I reread the book to discover a sublime masterpiece. It still doesn’t get mockingbirds right. It’ll take more to change my opinion of those heathens than even a profoundly well-written and well-reasoned novel about the human condition, but the mockingbird issue is de minimis. The book is simply one of the best pieces of fiction I have ever read. If, as Albert Jay Nock explains, good non-fiction describes some aspect of the world as it is, and good fiction provides some insight as to how a more ideal world might be, then To Kill a Mockingbird is an extremely good work of fiction that manages to mostly gets its non-fictional aspects right.
The protagonist and narrator, (first person, and more omniscient than God himself), Scout (aka, Jean Louise Finch), is undoubtedly modeled, at least a bit, after Twain’s Tom Sawyer. She’s a tomboy about eight years old that hangs out with Jem, her older brother by four years, and Dill, who is about her age, but who is a good bit smaller. Scout helpfully explains when they first meet that she could easily whip Dill. Scout, just like all the boys I grew up with in the South, loves to fight. Fighting is how things are settled, even when there’s not much to settle. Even mainstream historians (like David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed) have catalogued the white Southerner’s pugilistic ways, particularly among the children. It was my experience, growing up a good forty years behind the setting in Mockingbird, that children in the South receive little discouragement from fighting, which amounts to tacit encouragement. So, although Scout is a girl, albeit a very boyish one, and girls that fought were a rare thing indeed (except among the black ones, but that’s another matter), Scout’s fighting fits perfectly the male child’s experience growing up in the South, at least through my generation and in my locale.
Alas, at least in some quarters of the South, the pugilistic arts are withering and dying. I don’t think either of my children have ever even seen a fist fight among their friends, and I’m sure neither of them have ever been in one. They have both grown up in the metrosexual heart of Birmingham, if in this squalid little town there is such a thing, and they both to some extent abide by its metrosexual, i.e., androgynous, tenets. Testosterone seems to power the pugilistic urge (even among females), and testosterone has been practically nurtured clean out of them.
Atticus Finch is Scout and Jem’s dad. In today’s vernacular, we’d call him a “single dad”. The mom died a few days after giving birth to Scout. Calpurnia, Atticus’ black housekeeper, effectively serves as the children’s mother, at least until their Aunt Alexander arrives to “help”, which mainly means making Scout miserable. Atticus is, of course, a lawyer, and represents Maycomb in the Alabama state legislature.
The book’s header proclaims it “The timeless classic of growing up and the human dignity that unites us all”. This is not true. The book has very little to do with growing up, and it reveals more about human depredations than human dignity. Lee only uses the perspective of a child, much as Winston Groom’s classic, Forrest Gump, used the clear-eyed perspective of someone with a mental handicap, and Sling Blade used Billy Bob Thornton’s mentally-impaired character, Carl, to get at the true nature of the human heart. Mental impairment or incapacity, no matter the source, in a book or movie’s main character or narrator is an excellent strategy for cutting through the patina of rationalizations that are used as cover by adults for the real motivations and emotions powering their behavior. Impulse comes first, rationalizations follow; or to put it somewhat scientifically, the limbic system controls what will be done, the cortex (the frontal, temporal, parietal, etc. lobes) creates the reasoned justifications. Children and the mentally impaired aren’t expected to have the impulse control that adults and those with complete faculties (presumably) possess, so make excellent subjects for studying what really drives us.
Scout is a delightful vehicle (who wouldn’t love an eight year old tomboy with the insights of a god), and Lee uses her voice masterfully. She is somehow able to make it plausible that Scout would naturally know and understand that “Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings” (in the fourth paragraph of the book, no less), while later proclaiming innocence at why a black man in the South would inevitably be convicted if ever he was accused of raping a white woman. In the first instance, Lee demonstrates right off the bat that she fully well knows her South, where the queerest thing imaginable prevailed—everyone moved over from England, Scotland and Ireland, leaving behind the old country for a chance at the new, only to fastidiously hew, up and down the line, to the old hierarchies upon arrival. And in the second instance, she showed how tribalism of the sort that emigrated with the colonists prevented even the remote chance that justice could be served between the clans populating the new land. Alabama, particularly the part down in the Black Belt that Monroeville and Monroe County skirts along the edges, was old when it was new. The European Enlightenment didn’t kill feudalism, it just off shored it to the American South.
Much has been made of the Southern Gothic aspect of this novel, particularly as it is revealed through the antics of Scout, Jem and Dill in trying to get Boo Radley to reveal himself. But I don’t see it. I don’t really even get Southern Gothic. Glancing over the list of novels considered to exemplify Southern Gothic on the Wikipedia entry on the subject, it’s hard to imagine any important Southern novel that doesn’t qualify. Practically everything written by Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner are listed. Whatever Southern Gothic means, it seems it doesn’t do much in the way of distinguishing style or content. It is claimed that Southern Gothic relies on supernatural, ironic or unusual events to guide its plot. If so, then Mockingbird is anti-Gothic. Through Atticus, Lee pokes fun at the children’s silly superstitions, particularly regarding Boo Radley, and there is nothing ironic or unusual in the premises about the central conflict of Tom Robinson’s incarceration and conviction on false rape accusations. It makes sense to think of this as a Southern Gothic novel only if one doesn’t think too hard. It has aspects of the supernatural, ironic or unusual, but they hardly guide its plot, and are generally presented in a manner to show how ridiculous Southern (or really any) superstitions can be. If Southern Gothic is put to any use in the novel, Lee seems more interested in convincing people of how small-minded are their superstitions and prejudices, Southern or not. As Atticus told Scout and Jem, it was Boo Radley’s business what he did with his time; so long as he wasn’t hurting or bothering anyone, people should just leave him be.
Because of my legal brethren’s fascination with Atticus, I paid close attention to his character as it was slowly revealed through Scout’s observations. I can see how they believe Atticus to be worthy of emulation. Scout made him out to be something of a Socrates in wisdom, and a Christ in ethics. I wonder if his moniker, Atticus, was derived from ancient Greece (“man of Attica”) or was a reference to the ancient Roman, Titus Pomponius Atticus, a philosopher and writer that refused immersion in politics in accordance with his Epicureanism. Perhaps Lee just liked the name, but she created him so preternaturally wise and good, it would be hard to imagine the name itself wasn’t meant to recall some lofty vision of man. Maybe she intended to imply that Atticus exemplified all that was good and noble in the civilization from which the ideas of democracy and equal justice under the law originated.
There were other reasons lawyers might wish to emulate Atticus. He was a small-town lawyer in the county seat who could leisurely amble to and from home and work two and three times a day. His work was not stressful in a time-sensitive way, yet it held great meaning in the lives of his clients. Unlike the associates in a big law firm working a legal assembly line, he crafted the whole product of his labors, and so could admire the results of his efforts with some personal satisfaction. He did not have to wager his soul for his daily bread; in fact, resolute possession of his soul was his guiding professional principle. He was an integral part of a judicial system genuinely concerned with equitable resolution of the conflicts and affairs of the people it served; the Robinson trial was remarkable because it was a travesty of justice in a judicial system that rarely produced them.
Modern lawyers on both sides of the bar live nothing like Atticus lived. They pound their coffees, talking on their cell phones, tied up in rush hour traffic in their hulking SUV’s or sporty German sedans, on their way to far afield courthouses, rushing to dig for legal gold wherever it might be found. They know their clients expect them to lie on their behalf and they cynically meet their client’s every expectation. The sum total of their existence is acquisition: more money, more power, more status. There is nothing they won’t do to satiate their acquisitive urges. They are profoundly unhappy people, their lives in constant turmoil. The life Atticus leads seems a perfect example of the life of harmony they pretend they wish they had. Though their miserable lives are of their own choosing, they slough the fault off to the society in which they live: It is not their fault they never have time in the day to live as something better than an animal, employing faculties pertaining to things other than just acquisition. Things have got to be done; there is never any time to tarry. Alas, they sigh, “If only I were more like Atticus”. But they’ll never be more like Atticus because they don’t understand that the manner with which Atticus practiced law and lived life is not driven by external circumstance, but comes from within. Anyone could live and work like Atticus in any time and any place. Most simply choose not to, including mainly those Atticus emulators, which in a way, are the worst off, the least happy of all. They live in constant turmoil, understanding the correct way to live, desiring in their heart to live like they know they should, but unable to make the sacrifices necessary for doing so. They hate both their lives and themselves. Lee’s cruel, unattainable example of Atticus Finch sends them scurrying for solace by whatever means , including emulating Finch’s dress in lieu of the manner with which he lived.
Living like Finch today would involve virtual withdrawal from society, not dressing up like him and parading around in some throwback costume as if the grind of acquisition hadn’t caused the forfeiture of one’s soul. Finch would today be the quintessential “superfluous man” as Albert Jay Nock might have described it. While not necessarily worthy of sainthood, he would be one of the few men capable of seeing things as they are, just as he did with Robinson’s trial. Finch knew Robinson would be convicted, and could only hope for a successful appeal. Had his ethics run a bit closer to the practical, and the strategy been available during the day, Finch might have sabotaged Robinson’s defense in order to help his chances on appeal, making it appear Robinson had received inadequate assistance of counsel.
Lee did such a good job revealing through Scout’s observations and experiences the tribal nature of the human animal that Robinson’s actual trial seemed an unnecessary flourish. Anyone with even an inkling of knowledge about Southern history would have known there was no way Tom Robinson would be acquitted, and there’s no drama when the outcome is certain. Lee depicted the whole town and much of the surrounding countryside coming out for the trial, but one guesses that by doing so, she meant to show the people’s prurient interest in the subject matter, while also revealing the nature of the tribal loyalty that court attendance proclaimed for the individual. If Lee’s fictional narrative is true to its setting, no one in that courtroom thought for a moment, except perhaps children innocent to the ways of tribal politics (particularly Jem), that Tom would be set free.
I have never quite understood the compulsion people have for proving their cases in court, or for looking to the courtroom to resolve matters of truth. How is it that the truth can ever be adduced through the adversarial judicial system, where all that can be known for certain is that each side is fashioning a set of lies and half-truths to support its cause? And how can it be that truth can be determined by popular vote? Either a thing is or it isn’t. Truth cares not a whit for its popularity. Juries can rule against it all they want; truth still is. Truth is one thing; the resolution of disputes entirely another.
The courtroom is, however, an ample setting for revealing the tribal impulses of the human animal. There were basically three tribal groups in contention in the Maycomb courthouse. First, of course, was the black tribe to which Robinson belonged. They were powerless in the premises because the other two tribes—the poor white trash and the whites of a more genteel nature—had more in common, at least visually and culturally, with each other, than either had with the blacks, and they constituted a powerful majority. Bob Ewell, the man whose daughter Mayella was supposedly raped by Mr. Robinson, was white trash, through and through. But he well knew, that when it came down to it, all the white classes would side with him, as against the word of a “nigger”. (I knew some Bob Ewell types growing up, and can attest that Lee’s characterization is spot on). From the black perspective, there were only two tribes, the blacks and the whites. There was a smattering of people who were able to see through their tribal blinders to understand the travesty of justice being perpetuated. Atticus, and even the judge and the sheriff, represented them. But even from their prominent positions in the community, they were powerless to stop the destruction of Robinson’s life. They held their noses and did their jobs as best they could, without prejudice to either side, which meant, by default, that Ewell won and Robinson lost.
The trial points to a central weakness of the judicial system, and even to American society itself, not just in the nineteen-thirties, and not just as a result of white oppression and racism; it is a weakness stretching back to prehistory, yet abiding with us today. Man originally aggregated in small clans where everyone was related. He lived as if a chimpanzee in a troop, or perhaps, as a wolf in a pack. Survival and propagation of the clan was intricately entwined with the individual’s survival and propagation. If the clan didn’t survive, the individual likely wouldn’t either. So man developed tribal instincts; he was taught by nature to favor his own family, clan or tribe above anything or anyone else, as an extension of favoring himself, and to devise subtle distinctions among those whom he would favor and those he would exclude. When civilization arose with the advent of agriculture, the instinct to identify, protect and defend one’s own was further nurtured, even as it became necessary to include a broader and deeper population than one’s original clan or tribe. Coalitions of tribes became necessary for protecting the harvest and the land against other tribal coalitions. Tribal coalitions grew to become nations, which expanded and conquered to become empires. Fast forward several thousand years, and it was essentially coalitions of Germanic tribes that coalesced to form Germany. They weren’t all necessarily closely related to each other, but they were more closely related to each other than they were, for example, to the coalition of tribes that became France. Modern society is only a few steps removed from, and is the direct result of, its tribal origins.
Which is how things get complicated in courtrooms and in the larger American society. At the time of Mockingbird, America had at least two tribal groups, blacks and whites, and within each were several subgroups. In Alabama, the genteel whites were descended from English nobility, or learned to act like those that were. The poor white trash was mainly from the borderlands region of Scotland and Ireland, and a smattering of other northern European peoples. Genteel whites and poor whites hated and mistrusted each other nearly as much as each of the groups felt blacks were inferior and contemptible. The only glue strong enough to bind them, and then only very tenuously, was their loyalty to the white race when there arose an intertribal issue with blacks, such as the rape of a white woman by a black man, or earlier, when the federal government appeared ready to set the blacks free.
Justice and equity have always been relatively easy to come by within the tribe. Every legal code, from the Hebrew Old Testament to the Roman Civil Code to the English Common Law, was tailored to administer justice on disputes amongst tribal or group members. Disputes that cut across tribal boundaries were hardly contemplated, probably because they rarely happened, and when they did, the recourse was not justice, but war. But if the American experiment of ignoring race and class in the administration of justice were to survive, an idea that was really only gaining traction about the time of Mockingbird’s publication, intertribal justice had to be every bit as equitable as intra-tribal justice had been before. This, basically, was the social point Mockingbird attempted to drive home.
By and large, justice does now ignore race and class, except in some cases of notoriety. The O.J. Simpson case comes to mind. It showed that intertribal injustice could arise from any quarter; that perhaps the only reason blacks had not judicially oppressed whites before is because they had not before the power to do so.
But what is the glue holding America together now? With three distinct tribes (or groups—whites, blacks and Hispanics) vying for dominance, all of whom have the critical mass to assert and follow their own cultures, favoring their own tribe over that of others, wherein lies the future? America’s promise, the glue holding its disparate groups together, is the same as always: the promise of ever greater riches through cooperation instead of conflict. But what happens when the promise is proved a vacuous fraud? What happens when the aim isn’t to make the pie larger so everyone gets a bigger share, and becomes instead a scramble for whatever crumbs remain after the government and bankers (almost redundant) have had their fill? Will tribalism return with a vengeance?
To Kill a Mockingbird resonates yet today. Lee masterfully used the setting of a recalcitrant Southern state that had never quite gotten over its loss in the Civil War (and in many ways, still hasn’t) to explore the human heart and its condition, and delightfully so, through the eyes of a precocious child. The book is not at all preachy, but offers its insights with graceful subtlety, through the mind and crisp dialogue of children exploring the world. There were more than a few lines that had me chuckling, such as this classic:
The remainder of the afternoon went by in the gentle gloom that descends when relatives appear…
Lee’s family and mine must have had some few things in common. But I imagine, that’s sort of her point. There are a great many more gems; a great many more poignant observations of the human condition that Lee touches on than I have explored. If you haven’t read the book because, like me, you grew up deprived of it by your myopic educational system, by all means, read it now. It educates while it entertains—the essence of any great work of art.