What's Wrong With To Kill A Mockingbird?

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's masterpiece of children's literature, it appears some critics are itching to provide a corrective to all the millions-sold adulation. What's the matter with liking To Kill A Mockingbird? Well.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Allen Barro is vicious in his dismissal of the book, which he characterizes as blighted by a "moral grandeur" and notable only for its popularity. Among Southern writers, he says, Lee "doesn't really measure up to the others in literary talent, but we like to pretend she does."

Atticus 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.

Barro echoes, consciously or not, this passage from a 2009 New Yorker essay by the professional contrarian Malcolm Gladwell:

When his children bring up the subject of the Ku Klux Klan's presence in Maycomb, he shrugs: "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 paraded by Mr. Sam Levy's house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told 'em things had come to a pretty pass. . . . Sam made 'em so ashamed of themselves they went away." Someone in Finch's historical position would surely have been aware of the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia, in 1915. Frank was convicted, on dubious evidence, of murdering a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan. The prosecutor in the case compared Frank to Judas Iscariot, and the crowd outside the courthouse shouted, "Hang the Jew!" Anti-Semitism of the most virulent kind was embedded in the social fabric of the Old South. But Finch does not want to deal with the existence of anti-Semitism. He wants to believe in the fantasy of Sam Levy, down the street, giving the Klan a good scolding.

While an adult reader should bristle at such a benign description of the Klan and its activities in the 1920s South, it's important to remember the novel's context: Atticus is trying to explain the KKK to a 6-year-old girl, and more importantly, he is trying to allay his daughter's fears. When, later in the book, a lynch mob visits Atticus outside the city jail, the threat of violence is far more explicit, and Atticus's attempt to reason with the assembled horde utterly fails. While the child Scout doesn't seem to realize the real danger these men present — perhaps because her father sold her on a fantasy — the adult, narrator, Scout, is fully aware and willing to present the scene with all its frightful menace intact.

At its foundation, To Kill A Mockingbird is not the most morally complex of works, it is true. But then again, it is a novel written for children, and when it was composed, in the late 1950s, and published, in July, 1960, the proposition that black people ought to be treated as equal citizens was still a radical one in America. If Lee makes it clear to her audience where she believes our sympathies ought to lie — with Tom Robinson, the man falsely accused of rape, whose conviction is assured by a racist judicial system, and with Mayella Ewell, the impoverished incest victim who is forced to falsely accuse him by her abusive alcoholic father — then it is perhaps because at the dawn of the 1960s, the civil rights movement had yet to realize many of its most important victories, and the second-wave women's movement was barely even beginning.

This is not to say that To Kill A Mockingbird is a simple book. Scout's adult narrative voice reflects on events with a great deal more ambiguity than does Scout the child. And the book demands that we sympathize with Atticus even as we see him do some unsavory things: his moral code, which demands that he "love everybody" and places him firmly against oppression, apparently permits him to send his daughter off to entertain an unpredictable local drug addict, to brow-beat a victim of sexual abuse on the witness stand, and to, in Gladwell's words, collaborate with the local sheriff to "obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbor [Boo Radley] the burden of angel-food cake."

With each of these situations, the reader is forced to weigh competing goods. Is Atticus' evisceration of Mayella Ewell permissible because she is making a false rape claim in the knowledge that it will likely cost an innocent man his life? Is Mrs. Dubose a cranky old racist or "the bravest woman I have ever known," as Atticus says? Did Boo Radley truly kill Bob Ewell in self-defense? Are Atticus and the sheriff, in their willingness to protect the social status quo, contributing to the system of white male privilege that subjugates women and blacks — and the secrecy on which it depends?

Interestingly enough, a lot of the recent revisionist criticisms of To Kill A Mockingbird come with a political tinge. While Gladwell seems to find the book insufficiently progressive (it tells us "about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama"), the Wall Street Journal finds fault from the right: "Its bloodless liberal humanism is sadly dated, as pristinely preserved in its pages as the dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park." This "dated" point seems hard to argue in a nation where, at the middle of the century, blacks were imprisoned at only around four times the rate of whites. Today, they are imprisoned at seven times the rate of whites.

Looking for social policy prescriptions in a work of fiction seems like a dicey proposition at best. Perhaps rather than knocking To Kill A Mockingbird out of the pantheon because its court room scenes are ethically challenging, as Gladwell convincingly argues, we'd do better to wonder why it might be that the great novelist Nelle Harper Lee chose to write them so. What strategic reasons might Lee have had to complicate our sympathies, and portray how racial, class, and gender biases work together to distort justice?

Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, And What It Isn't [Wall Street Journal]

Related: Atticus Finch And Southern Liberalism [The New Yorker]
The Leonard Lopate Show: Texas Tough [Official Site]