paper trail

Jul 9, 2010 @ 9:00:00 am

As the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird's publication is celebrated this weekend, Harper Lee once again has found the spotlight. Meanwhile, her classic novel about the Jim Crow South has sold over thirty million copies, and continues to be patronized. Last year, Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article ("The Courthouse Ring") and more recently, Allen Barra’s Wall Street Journal piece ("What 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Isn't"), criticized the book for what is perceived as its mild-mannered liberalism. We’ve asked Nicolaus Mills, author of The Crowd in American Literature and Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America, and a professor of literature and American studies at Sarah Lawrence College, to answer the book’s critics:

Q. How do you respond to Allen Barra’s claim that Mockingbird isn’t great literature, because it lacks "ambiguity,” presents “a sugar-coated myth of Alabama’s past,” and offers readers a dated “bloodless liberal humanism”?

A. Barra ignores the tension between what Scout Finch, the narrator of Mockingbird, sees as a nine-year-old and what the text of Mockingbird reveals. Atticus, her beloved father, is a complex and ambiguous figure. A devoted parent, he is often distant from his children. He fights racism but deals civilly with his racist neighbors. He believes in the law, but at the end of Mockingbird he circumvents it to help his reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, avoid a devastating trial. As for Mockingbird sugarcoating Alabama’s racial history and offering the reader a bloodless liberalism, I would point to the fact that at the center of Mockingbird is a trial in which a black defendant is unjustly convicted of rape and a liberal white lawyer defies a lynch mob.

Q. Flannery O’Connor famously called Mockingbird a “children’s book.” Is it fair to say that Mockingbird is most suited these days to adolescents? 

A. O’Connor’s charge echoes the kind of criticism that has been used against The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. What she ignores is that tragedy is at the heart of Mockingbird. Tom Robinson goes to prison and, believing Atticus will be unable to free him on appeal, dies trying to escape. Compare Lee’s ending to the conclusion of Huckleberry Finn, in which Jim is set free by Miss Watson in her will because she is ashamed of once having thought about selling him down the river.

Q. Malcolm Gladwell suggests that Atticus is “a good Jim Crow liberal,” who encourages the jurors at Tom Robinson’s trial to “swap one of their prejudices for another.”

A. Gladwell doesn’t bother looking closely at the text of Mockingbird when he offers his harshest criticisms. Atticus does say that Mayella Ewell, the supposed rape victim of Tom Robinson, was the sexual aggressor. But Atticus never condemns her for her sexuality. On the contrary, he blames Southern prejudice for putting her in a position in which she feels she must lie: “She has committed no crime, she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society.” 

Q. What, if anything, do you make of Harper Lee’s silence all these years?

A. It strikes me as the silence of a modest woman, who doesn’t like the limelight and feels no need for self-promotion. It is too bad more writers can’t live by the same set of values.