I know this is sacrilege, to speak against To Kill a Mockingbird, but speak I must; First, like everyone else of my generation I loved the movie, liked the book and the story lives on in my childhood DNA. However, now in the 21st century it should not be overlooked that To Kill a Mockingbird was written by the alabaster-skinned, Harper Lee, a privileged daughter of the Old South.
When I ask writers what their favorite books are, many raise their hands and say, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, to which everyone in the room nods as if to say Amen, can I get a witness! Oops! That’s my Baptist upbringing oozing out… Anyway, then I ask, “When did you last read it?” Inevitably the answer is, “In grade school.” So (I ask) “How NOW is that one of your favorite books when you read it 5 decades ago?”
When I go further into discussion of the book, the story, even the mistakes and typos, everything (except Lee’s style, which is beautiful) they can’t seem to recall much beyond the moral lesson—that take away that caused a generation to take a passive pause—And then they recall Atticus, Boo and Scout, because they are part of our mythos now.
Anyway, you gotta wonder; is loving TKM considered as American as apple pie and ‘can I get a witness’???? Is having issues with it as sacrilege as burning the red, white and blue?
Toni Morrison once dismissed the novel as a “white savior story”, except that Atticus failed to save Tom Robinson. I agree.
To me as a writer, and now as an adult reader, the devastating flaw in Lee’s creation of Atticus is his passiveness and acceptance of rampant, murderous racism as the status quo. As the designer of his character (the author) rather than having him assigned by the court to defend Tom Robinson, I would have had him insist on serving as the innocent man’s lawyer—not because it’s his occupation but because it’s his duty. This assertion would have energized him and the story. He tells Scout, “Every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess.” Could he be more passive and unaffected? Could his moral compass be more limp-noodled? Tom Robinson’s damnation by the jury should have ripped the very fabric of Atticus Finch to shreds. But it didn’t because at his core, he too, was a racist, he expected it all along and just went through the motions, with a ‘that’s just the way things are’ attitude. And it’s that attitude that brings us back to the inescapable white woman sensibilities of the author.
Oh sure, Atticus was passively valiant when he stood on the steps of the jail blocking the rope totting white mob from reaching Tom Robinson—but that kind of bravery lacked fortitude and conviction, he was just doing his job, an empty gesture.
However, I think the typical American who revers that book would rather not consider the apathy, laziness, and lack of moral conviction of Atticus Finch. Rather, they indulge in the cute voice of a little girl named Scout who spoon-feeds her girlish moral observations in a way that is not too uncomfortable to digest.
TKM doesn’t ask us to challenge our scruples (like Huck Finn did) no, it allows us to just sit back and be charmed by that little girl, so satisfied by the decency of her father.
Loving and extolling Mockingbird eases our self-blame, and in doing so, absolves us of accountability. It feels good, it feels right, to cherish this novel—AMEN! It feels like it’s what we’re supposed to do. It seduces by attaching itself to our nostalgia and then by satiating our flaccid conscience like the junk food on which we mindlessly indulge. Yep, as long as there are Atticus Finches in the world, someone will step up and take charge, and you yourself can remain in your reclining chair, popcorn in hand watching movies that make you feel like you’ve agreed with the moral thing to do instead of getting up and doing it. We Americans prefer our morality boiled down into easy bite size titbits, and so the lax-a-daisy one-liner-ethics of Mockingbird were and remain appetizing for millions.
Aside from TKM’s Black/African-American stereotypes, of which I am not qualified (as a white woman) to discuss with the fervor they deserve, there are other toxic messages. As writers, we have the potential to send messages, intentional or not, good and bad, via our stories, that are more far-reaching than we imagine.
For example, Imagine that you are an African-American seventh-grade boy in Mississippi today, and are asked to read TKM. Then imagine that it reinforces your haunting suspicion that you are treated differently because of the color of your skin, and that you’ll never get a fair trial if you are suspected of something, like Tom Robinson.
Or, you’re an underprivileged, white seventh-grade girl in Anywhere USA today, asked to read TKM. Then, sadly, you are raped, but after reading that book and digesting other social observations, you stay quiet, believing that people don’t believe girls who say they’ve been raped, like the book says, everyone should have doubted Mayella Ewell.
I could go on and on about how toxic the messages of TKM are, or the changes that have not occurred these 50 some years later, but don’t worry, I won’t. What I will say is that if you are a writer, then please create all your characters (primary and supporting) with more verve and vigor than the limp noodled morally ambiguous Atticus Finch.
In addition, when you’re in a writing group or class and you’re asked, “What are your favorite books” at least have read said books in the last decade. When a writing instructor asks you that question, she/he is asking you what/who influences your writing and the stories you tell. They are also asking you why those influences have stayed with you, what’s evocative about them, why do they matter??? So, when people tell me TKM is their favorite book I invite them to re-read it now and then let’s talk. So far, no takers.
Climbing down off my soapbox now. Scattered Rant is over.