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December 30th, 2012

Harper Lee’s “Mockingbird” as a Novel of White Southern Conscience

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to write a YA (Young Adult reader) biography of Harper Lee for Morgan Reynolds Publishing, a Greensboro, NC-based educational publishing company. Real Courage: The Story of Harper Lee was published this month, and I can’t think of a better topic for my own blog than Harper Lee’s only novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.

If you want to know more about Harper Lee and why she never wrote another book, I suggest that you purchase my biography. For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to focus on Mockingbird and its reputation as a book that directly influenced the Civil Rights Era and race relations in the United States.

Mockingbird was published in 1960, but the semi-autobiographical novel takes place in the early 1930s, when Nelle Harper Lee was a girl in Monroeville, a small town in southern Alabama. In Mockingbird, Lee’s alter ego, Scout Finch, is a girl in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The book’s second half focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man who has been falsely accused of rape by a young white woman and her abusive father. The plot of Nelle Harper’s novel has since become associated with the Civil Rights Era, and so what became interesting to me as I learned more about Nelle was that the authoress of Mockingbird didn’t intend for her book to be political. In the interviews that Nelle subjected herself to before she stopped talking to reporters in the mid-’60s, Nelle states that her book was intended to capture Southern small town life in the 1930s; in some cases, she explicitly distanced herself from the civil rights movement. In an interview with the Birmingham Post Herald, Nelle said:

My book has a universal theme, it’s not a ‘racial’ novel. It portrays an aspect of civilization. I tried to show the conflict of the human soul—reduced to its simplest terms. It’s a novel of man’s conscience . . . universal in the sense that it could happen to anybody, anywhere people live together . . . It amuses me that ‘Mockingbird’ is taken as a dreadfully liberal novel by some of our dinosaurs. It’s not liberal or conservative. I just hope it’s a good book.

Harper Lee is no Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the specific purpose of advancing Abolitionism, which I wrote about in an earlier Book Don post. Harper Lee’s intent was not political. However, insofar as the personal is always political, Lee certainly would have hoped that her message of tolerance and justice would influence her readers’ lives. In chapter seven of Real Courage: The Story of Harper Lee, I focused on the ways in which  Mockingbird influenced white Southerners in the early 1960s, especially after the release of Mockingbird’s film adaptation. What follows is an excerpt from Real Courage: The Story of Harper Lee. If you have inquiries about how to purchase Real Courage for school classrooms and libraries at a discounted rate, please visit the Morgan Reynolds website or contact me directly. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!!

From Real Courage, chapter seven:

“Over time, the public’s relationship with the book has changed. Due to its enormous popularity in schools, it ranks on the American Library Association’s list of books that are frequently challenged for potential banning. The first famous challenge occurred in 1966, when the Hanover County School Board in Richmond, following a complaint from a local physician, who labeled it “improper” and “immoral” due to the rape trial. A flurry of disputes followed, and Nelle wrote to the local paper, expressing incredulity at charges against Mockingbird’s morality: “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.”

… Beginning in the late ’70s, a new wave of challenges was leveled against the book: To Kill a Mockingbird was considered racist. Challenges of this nature picked up after 1981, when Warren Township, Indiana, contended the book “represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature.” In 1985, a similar challenge was supported by the NAACP.

It’s true that Mockingbird is told from a white perspective and contains one-dimensional black characters. A 1963 Time review of the Mockingbird film saw Tom as the stereotypical “good Negro” who is “just too goody-good to be true.” In 1966, critic W. J. Stuckey wrote that Calpurnia, the Finch’s housemaid, fills the “lovable ‘mammy’” stereotype. Novelist James McBride, in an interview about Mockingbird for Hey, Boo, a recent documentary about Harper Lee, said that Nelle’s perspective as a white writer “doesn’t absolve her of the responsibility of handling the character Tom better.” Nevertheless, McBride said that when he read Mockingbird as a boy, “it was the first time I read a book by a white writer who really discussed the issues of racism in any way that was complicated and sophisticated.”

When Mockingbird was published in 1960, its contents weren’t surprising for many black readers, who lived daily with the fear that friends or family might suffer a fate like Tom’s. Rather, the book was illuminating for white readers. Nelle’s narrative technique of showing racism through the eyes of a child allowed them to witness certain aspects of their society. Mark Childress, a novelist who grew up in Mississippi, recalled in “Hey, Boo” the impact that Mockingbird had on white readers in the ’60s:

It gives white southerners a way to understand the racism that they’ve been brought up with

and to find another way. And for white southerners at that time, there was no other way.

There were either outsiders yelling at you because you were a racist cracker, or your leaders,

George Wallace saying, ‘I’ll never be out-niggered again.’ There was no middle ground. Most

white people in the South . . . were not throwing bombs and causing havoc, but they had been

raised in the system . . . the book really helped them come to understand what was wrong with

the system in a way that any number of treatises could never do, because it was popular art, told

from a child’s point of view.

Historical writer Diane McWhorter, who was a girl in Birmingham, Alabama, when the Mockingbird film was released, recalled what it was like to sympathize with Tom Robinson at a time when racial hatred in Birmingham was at its peak: “I started getting really upset about being upset, because by rooting for a black man you were kind of betraying every principle that you had been raised to believe in. And I remember thinking, What would my father do if he saw me fighting back these tears when Tom Robinson gets shot?”

Mockingbird stays forever perched on the brink of the civil rights era, which Atticus hinted at, telling his children: “Don’t fool yourselves—it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.” In her book, Nelle is ambivalent about southern heritage. Social and racial snobbery are portrayed as a negative aspect of southern culture, while bigotry, poor education, and irrational hatred are portrayed as the worst aspects. At the same time, Nelle treasures the South—its tight-knit communities, its languid pace of life, its humor, warmth, and hospitality. In Mockingbird, Nelle hoped to show that there was another route for the South—a way to nurture its best qualities while smiting out its worst.”