Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was a success before it was published in July 1960. The Book of the Month Club and The Literary Guild guaranteed the novel commercial success by selecting it. Thence it was condensed by Reader’s Digest, approved of by the Alabama legislature, translated in Europe, and gossiped about in the magazines. Within a year it had won a Pulitzer Prize and sold 2.5 million copies. The following year it landed in the sweet spot of middlebrow glory — a film adaptation that won an Academy Award for Gregory Peck.
As the armies of tolerance celebrate To Kill a Mockingbird—it’s the 50 anniversary this month—one is put in mind of a maxim by W.H. Auden: “You do not read a book,” Auden said. “A book reads you.” What do Tom Robinson, Bob and Mayella Ewell, Scout and Jem Finch, and their father Atticus say of our long fascination with them?
Many of us were clamoring for the return of the novel as a vehicle for social criticism when they appeared. In the 1940s and 1950s, the vogue for “New Fiction” had abandoned the social realism of the 1930s. Postwar writers, worried about the obliteration of personality in a period of total war and nuclear threat, had turned inward toward pathologies — trauma, anxiety, dysfunction, alienation, angst, despair–and took Freud, Kierkaagaard, and Dostoevsky as intellectual sources. The note of social rejection or ambivalence resounds in the era’s most influential youth novel, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and in its best race novel, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. To Kill a Mockingbird combined youth and race as youth was beginning to revolt, as race was moving to the center of national politics, and as novels (and films) were returning to prominence in criticism as well as in art.
Oddly for a novel that is touted as a vehicle for social justice, liberal humanism, and the universal virtues of tolerance, kindness, and fair play, there are few, if any, transcendent principles in play. Lee miniaturizes the social problems her characters pose by a strategy of containment, a key Cold War objective. Conceived and written in the 1950s, the novel says that we would prefer to think of race as a local issue, of society as religious, of justice as patrimonial, and of politics not at all.
Maycomb, the setting, is a stationary state and closed society where lemonade is served at mid-morning, contracts are sealed by handshakes, there are no secrets that are not shared, and every issue is local. The story’s conceit that one citizen performing his given role is enough to contain a racial crisis that, in historical fact, was an international one. Yet Maycomb is left unchanged by the trial of Tom Robinson and the murder of two citizens. Atticus, the biggest bore among the characters, does not change or develop in any way. Although he moves through the events in a halo of bathos, he is re-elected to the legislature, without opposition, at the end of the story. How courageous was Atticus’s famous courage?
Breaches in the tacit social code that holds Maycomb together are referred to the decree of filial authority. The fates of the boys and girls in the Radley, Cunningham, Ewell, and Finch families are entrusted not to the courts, but to the personal discretion of fathers. This is a family narrative that crowds out of its moral optic even extended relations like Aunt Alexandra and cousin Francis.
Simon Finch, the family patriarch, was a Methodist who came to America fleeing English persecution. He made his way from Philadelphia to Jamaica, then to Alabama. Once there, Simon sinned by purchasing slaves. In defending Tom Robinson, Atticus exorcises the demon of slavery from the Finch family history. Explaining to Scout why he’s agreed to defend an accused rapist, he defines his conscience in religious terms. “This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience. Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
Tom Robinson has been a member of the First Purchase African Methodist Church since he was a boy, the same church to which Calpurnia belongs, and the same denomination as their author. “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners,” Miss Lee once wrote. Almost the first move she made when she became wealthy was to earmark an annual percentage of her royalties for the First United Methodist Church of Monroeville, her lifelong congregation.
Of politics, we are not to speak at all, even though Atticus Finch is the town’s leading politician. According to Charles J. Shield’s Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, she knew all about the events of 1931, when nine black men were removed from a train in Paint Rock, Alabama, and charged with raping two white women. This was the famous case of the Scottsboro Boys, whose trials lasted until 1937. Their earliest defenders were communists, who were organizing sharecroppers, black and white, all over Alabama in the Depression. Tom Robinson’s case would have attracted some such notice, though Lee deliberately avoided any hint of radicals. Notice that Atticus is blind in his left eye, that Tom Robinson has a crippled left arm, but that the villain, Bob Ewell, is left-handed!
The style reinforces the conservatism of the message. Lee treats race, sex, violence, and incest, themes familiar in southern literature. But in her style there is no trace of Eudora Welty’s spontaneity, or Flannery O’Connor’s comic Christianity. If William Faulkner were writing this story he’d have Atticus sleeping with his black cook, Calpurnia, and Scout as the illegitimate offspring of Miss Maudie. Here, the moralism is as managed as a sermon.
We must not forget this is a book for adolescents, observed by a second-grade girl who uses words like “lineaments” and sees through the evils of the Dewey Decimal System. Are Scout’s capacities probable? (This point was debated in the rough cut of the film, which, when released, diminished the children’s point of view in favor of Gregory Peck’s Atticus, who thereby shifted the locus of the story from the society to the courtroom). Remember, though, that the novel is descended from a genre popularized by Charles Dickens and brought to a kind of perfection by Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. By seeing the world of adults through the eyes of children, the genre honors the romantic vision of preserving the child in man. Sincerity is the keynote. But unlike in Oliver Twist and Tom Sawyer, which point outward, toward risk and adventure, To Kill a Mockingbird turns inward, toward filiopiety.
The mothers only appear to be absent from the story. Atticus and his rival, Bob Ewell, are widowers. Attitus compensates with a feminized sense of virtue, but Jem and Scout’s dead mother is also symbolized in Boo Radley, the sleeping monster. At the end, when Boo Radley materializes and saves their lives, we learn he’s the opposite of a demon. He’s a guardian angel, the agent of containment–the theodicy explained by the fiat of the immaterial world. We are requested to believe that an adult man who stabbed his father in the thigh (an attempt at castration) may credibly emerge from 25 years of detention with his morals and capacities intact. But Boo Radley, the only figure who is untouched by the foul events, stands in for the ghost of the mother, the missing parent.
The first time Boo appears on screen, he’s in the Finch home, hiding in a corner behind the door. The camera shows him against a background that includes a framed photograph of the dead mother off to the left. Boo leans down and touches the unconscious Jem. Then Atticus turns to Boo and says, “Thank you for my children.” The family circle is now complete.
When the Sheriff and Atticus collude to obstruct justice for Bob Ewell, a move completely at odds with the theme of universal fair- play, we are assured that the community can protect itself without any help from outsiders, a lesson completely at odds with southern history. Fantasists of containment have never had a better friend than Harper Lee.
John Summers is author of “Every Fury on Earth,” visiting scholar in history at Boston College, and member of a panel on “To Kill a Mockingbird” that convened earlier this month at The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Email him your complaints at email@example.com.