Harper Lee's Mixed Legacy

I taught To Kill a Mockingbird many times, and every time I reread it, I choked up. It's a wonderful, evocative piece of literature. As for the movie, forget about it. I lost it over and over as I watched; it's almost unbearably poignant during the last half hour. I would probably have a similar emotional meltdown with the book or the movie today, but that good, warm, self-satisfied feeling I used to experience at the end would be gone. Looking at Mockingbird from the perspective I have today, especially after reading Harper's first novel, Go Set a Watchman, which was just published recently, I find the book to be both paternalistic and misleading. If I were still teaching, more than likely, Mockingbird would not be part of my curriculum.

What a wonderful guy Atticus Finch is in Mockingbird! He's a lawyer who takes the case of a poor black man and defends him against a false rape charge. The loss in court makes his struggle to right the wrongs of society all the more noble. He's hated by the town's white racists and beloved by the black community, and by Scout, his very young daughter who idolizes her father and narrates the book through a child's innocent eyes. To me, the book always read like a parable for our time, about how good white people should act and how, in spite of all the losses, we must continue to fight until racism is no longer the written and unwritten law of the land.

But the book is not a parable of our time. It's a tale out of the 1930s. At the time, Atticus could defend the black community of Maycomb County and not worry that they might attend Scout and Jem's school or move in next door. His nobility was built on the well established arm's distance between Maycomb's black and white communities. I wouldn't have been able to say that for certain a few years ago, but Harper Lee told us it's true in the novel she wrote before she began Mockingbird.

Go Set a Watchman
took place in the 1950s when it was written, during the beginnings of the modern civil rights struggles. In that book a grown up Scout, who, like Harper Lee herself, had moved to New York and returned to her home town for a visit, is horrified to find that her beloved father has joined with the KKK, and he was one of many among the town's civic leaders. Atticus despises the NAACP and its lawyers for coming into southern communities and stirring up trouble. He doesn't want black children going to white children's schools. He wants things to stay as they were back in the 1930s when he could defend members of the black community and rest assured they would still "know their place." His depression-era style of tolerance and acceptance had little to do with the genuine social change which was being demanded by civil rights leaders in the 1950s.

Watchman is a book about a grown woman who, like Lee, embraces the civil rights movement and experiences a painful culture shock when she returns home and realizes the white people she admired as a child for their love and tolerance had reverted to a more racist stance when their established order was threatened. Lee was told that the novel Watchman wouldn't go anywhere in its current form and she should try again, that she should write her new book around some of the childhood reminiscences in the novel. The resulting book, Mockingbird, is a retreat to Lee's rose-colored youth, painting a child's view of that beautiful world Lee grew up in—the same world her grownup protagonist of Watchman realizes was a sham.

From a literary standpoint, Mockingbird is a far better novel than Watchman, but it's not because of its literary merit alone that the book became an overnight sensation and has continued to sell more than 50 years later. It's because the book is an inspirational affirmation of the way many of us want to see ourselves. We would rather not admit that in many ways, we are far too much like the Atticus of the '50s who runs from his anti-racist ideals when he's confronted with the reality of a world where some of his power and privilege have to be relinquished to allow others to have the rights of equal citizenship without Jim Crow laws and the burden of being treated as inferiors. It's an uncomfortable truth that many of us would rather not face. But if we're paying attention to what's going on around us today, we should be shocked into realizing that institutional and personal racism have clung to their power tenaciously since civil rights legislation passed in the '60s, and we need to understand how much liberal whites have benefitted from looking the other way while we pride ourselves on our post-racial ideals and see ourselves reflected in the noble portrayal of Atticus in Mockingbird.