“To summarize: Harper Lee is one HECK of a woman!”
– quote from either any PCA minister active in the South today, or from George W. Bush upon bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Harper Lee in 2007. I forget which, and it’s not that important anyway.
In 1852, a woman by the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a Southern-set novel entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Influenced by the era’s abolitionist movement, it was an emotion-laden plea for racial harmony between blacks and whites. Purportedly Christian, in reality it was heavily influenced by the soft Marxist tinge that was making great inroads into the literature of its time. This did not stop the novel from becoming exceedingly popular among the public and would lead to its becoming a staple in classrooms for decades to come. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln would invite Mrs. Stowe to the White House and famously proclaim her, with admiration, as ‘the little woman who wrote the book that started this war’.
Let us move forward over a century later and meet her doppelgänger. In 1960, a woman by the name of Harper Lee wrote a Southern-set novel entitled To Kill a Mockingbird. Influenced by the era’s black civil rights movement, it was an emotion-laden plea for racial harmony between blacks and whites. Purportedly Christian, in reality it was heavily influenced by the soft Marxist tinge that had already inundated the literature of its time. This did not stop the novel from becoming exceedingly popular among the public and would lead to its becoming a staple in classrooms for decades to come. Admittedly, neither John F. Kennedy nor Lyndon Johnson invited her to the White House and called her ‘the little woman who wrote the book that started this (Vietnam) war’. Crypto-espionage and false-flag staging had come a long way since the 1860s, and what else was the Gulf of Tonkin good for except an Incident?
The analogy differs in another, and quite remarkable, way as well. Mrs. Stowe was a prolific author, writing some thirty books over the course of her career. Miss Lee’s magnum opus, on the other hand, was, until very recently and with the exception of a handful of minor magazine articles and essays, her sole published work.
Very rarely has an author’s first novel been greeted with an immediate enshrinement in the top tier of a culture’s pantheon as Mockingbird was. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1961, leading many commentators to opine that it merited a nomination for a literary Nobel prize as well. Immediate work began on a movie version, released in 1962 and earning Gregory Peck an Oscar for his role as Atticus. Peck would remain in touch with Lee for the rest of his life, and his children continue to do so. Much hoopla was made (and continues to be made, as demonstrated here) that Atticus was analogous to Martin Luther King, Jr., in his goals for racial progression, except that he failed in those goals while ‘Dr.’ King was succeeding. This demonstrates that even half a century ago, well-meaning but ineffectual liberalism was the highest caste that Caucasians could ever hope to attain in the New Frontier – without joining a secret society, at any rate.
Almost as overwhelming (and overbearing) have been the accolades bestowed upon book and authoress in the years since publication. Mockingbird has been required reading for three or four generations of students, at all grade levels and into university. Harper Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. A group of British historians went so far as to place the novel before the Bible on a list of books to read in one’s lifetime.1 (One may safely assume that the Church of England seconded this motion with John Bull’s trademark heartiness.) All of this, bear in mind, from the twentieth century’s least prolific writer.
However, those pining for more of the voice of this one writing in the wilderness received some good news earlier this year. As we know from such examples as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and the return of the bubonic plague, nothing is more welcome than a long-delayed sequel. And in the summer of 2015 Mockingbird’s follow-up (somewhat of a contentious point, as will be discussed later) Go Set a Watchman was released to much hullaballoo – in itself quite amazing, as when was the last time the release of a novel received any media attention? Oh right…Fifty Shades of Gray. Well, anyway, this book, too, was an immediate sensation, with a record 1.1 million copies being sold during its first week of publication.2 We can expect a movie adaptation shortly, doubtless starring Will Smith in the role of Atticus.
We here at Faith & Heritage appreciate a cultural pantheon as much as anyone, but we also keep some shovels handy in case the manure pile gets a little too rancid. Bearing this in mind, let us peruse these two works and see if we can discern why our Betters have all but canonized the scribblings of Miss Lee.
To Kill a Mockingbird3A very important point to bear in mind is that To Kill a Mockingbird, for all its highfalutin’ literary pretensions and consequent accolades, is primarily a young adult novel. Its theme and occasional salty language render it too explicit for young children, but as the protagonists are mostly children observing the novel’s incidents through a youthful lens, it is clear what demographic Lee was targeting. This is borne out by the title page’s dedicatory quote from Charles Lamb: ‘Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.’ The significance of this focus will become abundantly clear.
Our setting is the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the grips of the Great Depression. It is a town of contradictions, at once devoutly religious – in Arminian fashion: pictures of Jesus adorn the courthouse walls, home worship as opposed to church congregating is considered a potentially dangerous eccentricity, and lively discussions erupt over foot-washing vs. non-foot washing Baptists – yet enmeshed in Rooseveltian statist idolatry:
But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.4Likewise, the town’s children are well steeped in minutiae of Southern Confederate history:
When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.5Yet they display an insular attitude towards their own small corner of the world:
North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.6Two things remain consistent, though: the town’s white residents are exceedingly class-conscious, and an evil aura of pathological racism seems to pervade the very landscape.
Oddly enough, such an aura seems to be resisted by a majority of the characters with whom we will be presented – especially by the book’s three youthful protagonists: siblings Scout and Jem Finch, and their friend Dill.
This would be an appropriate place for me to mention a common trope within Southern literature that I find particularly annoying: the propensity of many authors to label their characters with juvenile, cutesy-pie nicknames. These run the gamut from William Faulkner’s ‘Cash’ and ‘Dewey Dell’ from As I Lay Dying, to Erskine Caldwell’s ‘Ty Ty’ in God’s Little Acre, to Caldwell’s ‘Lov’, ‘Dude’, and ‘Jeeter’ in Tobacco Road, to however many ‘Big Daddies’ Tennessee Williams featured in his plays over the years. Such a patronizing theme demonstrates the condescension to which these authors look upon their agrarian forefathers. Lee also apes this ‘proud’ tradition – another (white!) man later on in the novel carries the absurd name X Billups – but for a slightly different purpose. Hers is a motherly kind of condescension, where the naturally soft-headed Southrons she ‘cherishes’ can be molded into something better for a kinder future Dixie…provided you get ‘em young.
We are also introduced early on to the book’s main protagonist and moral pillar: Mr. Atticus Finch – possibly the most insufferable prig ever committed to letters. He makes Hannibal Lecter look humble. He represents the coming urbanity of the new South: it is mentioned early on that he read for the law in Montgomery while his sister Alexandra married ‘a taciturn man who spent most of his time lying in a hammock by the river wondering if his trot-lines were full.’7 Correspondingly, he looks down his nose ever so benignly at his rural neighbors, assuring his daughter Scout that they might be poor but not as poor as the Cunninghams, who can only afford to pay him in truck vegetables for services rendered. Atticus also shakes his head sadly and consigns Cunningham to ‘a set breed of men’ when he refuses to neglect his farm to take a government WPA job.8 But fear not: to demonstrate that he isn’t entirely rootless, Lee also shows Atticus eloquently discussing farm problems with Cunningham’s son Walter and makes mention of the fact that he ‘likes’ Maycomb and is ‘related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town.’9 Like the milieu in which he lives, contradictions abound in Atticus’s character. He seems almost disconnected from anything natural, his hobbies being described thus:
He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did: he never went hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the livingroom and read.10Yet shortly after this portrait, he demonstrates his adroitness with a rifle when he effortlessly dispatches the rabid dog Tim Johnson. Hence, Finch can be seen as a manifestation of Marxist dialectic materialism – caught in a mid-evolutionary limbo between bucolicism and Bohemianism. Lee skillfully disguises her intent and manipulates him into being a sympathetic hero with one foot in the old world and one in the new. No one was ever sucked in by uninvolving propaganda.
Atticus’s relationship with his children can be best described as gently demagogic and distant. Rearing them on his own as a widower, he can’t be bothered teaching them how to fire their air rifles or enjoy a rousing Confederate ballad, but he is never lacking for worldly wisdom and humanist causes with which to inculcate them. It’s akin to being raised by an omnibus edition of Benjamin Franklin homilies and Angela Davis manifestos. In keeping with this coolness, and also to demonstrate Atticus’s ‘progressivism’, his kids refer to him by his first name throughout the book, with an occasional ‘sir’ thrown in for good measure. Indeed, familial detachment is another running theme throughout Mockingbird. Maudie Atkinson, a major character, is also a widow. Dill’s father abandoned his family, and Dill constructs elaborate fantasies as to his current station in life. Never-married maidens abound: virtually every teacher, the principal at the public school, Stephanie Crawford, Rachel. The few intact families are presented with a jaded eye: the Radleys are oddballs and social pariahs (and Mrs. Radley passes away in the book’s course), Atticus’s sister Alexandra decidedly wears the pants in her family, and the Ewells, the book’s largest family with nine children, are presented as unredeemable white trash and the villains of the piece. This makes for a town that is decidedly old and reactionary: it is described merely as a ‘settled neighborhood’ in one section.11
Given the book’s target audience, the three kids represent the most dynamic characters and the only ones who undergo major changes in perspective during the course of the novel. They are initially presented as bright but bumptious, though Dill, being an outsider, is less influenced by Maycomb’s insularity. They display occasional childish cruelty, as when Jem talks of holding a lit match to a turtle’s underbelly to make him come out of his shell.12 They are also prone to dabbling in superstitions, scaring each other with tales of ‘Hot Steams’ (“A Hot Steam’s somebody who can’t get to heaven, just wallows around on lonesome roads an’ if you walk through him, when you die you’ll be one too, and you’ll go around at night suckin’ other people’s breath…”13) and repeating the legend about the ‘lady in the moon in Maycomb’.14 The novel focuses on the events that cause the children to shed their stodgy racial and cultural presuppositions – already, as the book opens, in an advanced state of decay thanks to the ‘guidance’ of the solonic Atticus – so that they might become active participants in the forging of a kinder, gentler, and decidedly secular South, the South of the likes of Terry Sanford, Jimmy Carter, and, later on, Bill Clinton. Lee presents this in the manner of Paul’s reminiscences in 1 Corinthians 13:11 (“When I was a child I spake as a child . . . but when I became a man I put away childish things”), one factor that has helped solidify Mockingbird’s false reputation as a Christian novel.
Plot-wise, the children’s metamorphosis is presented in a series of vignettes, often written in a light lyrical fashion that demonstrates Lee’s undeniable literary talents. Consider, as an example, this passage in which Scout describes Dill’s flights of fancy:
Dill Harris could tell the biggest ones I ever heard. Among other things, he had been up in a mail plane seventeen times, he had been to Nova Scotia, he had seen an elephant, and his granddaddy was Brigadier General Joe Wheeler and left him his sword.15Humorous and eloquent, though perhaps it would be uncharitable to note that for years rumors have persisted that Lee’s close friend and fellow Southern revisionist Truman Capote wrote large swaths, if not the bulk, of the novel. Be that as it may…
Two main plot threads, seemingly unconnected until book’s end, eventually develop. Both rank among the more famous (or infamous) threads of twentieth-century literature. In the first, the three kids fail in their attempts to unravel the mystery of Boo Radley, a phantom of a man who lives an entirely sheltered existence in the house next door to the Finches’. In the second, Atticus takes on the inflammatory case of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully charged with rape.
Bridging these two threads is another major character: Calpurnia, the Finches’ black maid and the moral center of the family. (Atticus is content to relegate himself to the more pragmatic, rational center of the family, given his Lockean mindset.) She has acted as a surrogate mother ever since Mrs. Finch’s passing, and Atticus makes mention several times in the course of the book how the family would have fallen to pieces without her guiding hand – usually after one of the children gets into a state of understandable pique after being dressed down by a matronly but still alien presence in their midst. He also hotly defends his ceding of parental authority to her in front of his all-but-antebellum sister Alexandra.16 We realize early on her role in the novel when she severely rebukes Scout for getting snide with poverty-struck bumpkin Walter Cunningham:
“Hush your mouth! Don’t matter who they are, anybody sets foot hin this house’s yo’ comp’ny, and don’t you let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was so high and mighty! Yo’ folks might be better’n the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ‘em – if you can’t act fit to eat at the table you can just set here and eat in the kitchen!”17Thus it takes the earthy black woman to fully hone the blade of white class consciousness into the mind of young Scout.
It should also be noted that all of the black characters in Mockingbird are, unsurprisingly, presented in a uniformly positive fashion. Besides the saintly Calpurnia, Tom is depicted as a stalwart yet humble martyr who has lived a blameless life save for a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct he received while defending himself from an attack from a no-doubt white perpetrator.18 Nowhere does Lee better document her ham-fisted characterization than in chapter 12, wherein Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to her church one Sabbath. Its pristine character is described in less than discreet terms:
First Purchase African M.E. Church was in the Quarters outside the southern town limits, across the old sawmill tracks. It was an ancient paint peeled frame building, the only church in Maycomb with a steeple and bell [hence, the only ‘real’ church? – CM], called First Purchase because it was paid for from the first earnings of freed slaves. Negroes worshiped in it on Sundays, and white men gambled in it on weekdays.19Lest this doesn’t pull on our heartstrings sufficiently, the congregation is described thus:
The warm bittersweet smell of clean Negro welcomed us as we entered the churchyard – Hearts of Love hairdressing mingled with asafetida, snuff, Hoyt’s Cologne, Brown’s Mule, peppermint, and lilac talcum.20Well, what else can one possibly expect from such a jovial bunch? The children are treated with great respect by the entire congregation, unlike white adults who tend to get irritated by or patronize them. We also learn here that Zeebo, the meticulous garbage collector who disposed of the rabid dog Atticus shot earlier, is black – this is meant to be a surprise revelation. The congregation, being illiterate, nonetheless knows the entire hymnal by heart and belts out the chosen psalm with passion. The pastor, Reverend Sykes, calls for blessings upon individuals, unlike Maycomb’s white churches, which merely ask for blessings upon the population as a whole.21 Immediately after, he boldly calls for a collection of ten dollars to be taken up for Tom’s legal defense fund, and (ho ho!) holds the congregation hostage until he gets it to the last dime.22 It’s difficult not to read a subtle endorsement of Marxist principles in Fabian socialist garb from this particular episode. It is also in this chapter that we are introduced to the novel’s sole somewhat negative black character – Lula, a very minor figure who jeers at the presence of white children in her church, making the (legitimate) point that they have churches of their own to attend – prompting St. Calpurnia to intone, “It’s the same God, ain’t it?”23 Rather unsettling to hear the LORD referred to as ‘it’, I have to say, even if it is meant to be a bit of punnery on Lula’s outburst, “It’s our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?” 24 It is perhaps appropriate that this chapter ends with another surprise revelation: that Calpurnia taught Zeebo how to read via the Bible and Blackstone’s Commentaries.25 In short, Calpurnia is the man that Barack Obama always wanted to be.
As mentioned before, class consciousness and racial capitulation make up the two overriding themes of the novel. The Boo Radley plot thread acts as a podium for the former. Boo, a notorious recluse and Maycomb’s official enigma, is obsessively hounded by Scout, Jem, and Dill to emerge from his lair so they can all get a good long gander at him. Jem’s initial description of him as a fiendish ogre who lives on raw squirrel meat and cat at first reads like a typical childish fancy towards the unknown,26 but as the novel progresses and it becomes obvious that every single event depicted is pregnant with ‘meaning’, it is difficult to read those same words without presupposing an attitude of middle-class snobbery towards a white family of lesser standing than the Finches. Indeed, much of Atticus’s initial pluralist and grandstanding parental technique concerns their attitude towards Boo rather than towards their black brethren and sistren. This adds an extra dimension to the kids’ ashamedness when they are nearly shot by Boo’s father after he mistakes them for a ‘Negro in his collard patch’ when they trespass in an attempt to get Boo’s attention one night – especially when he further says, “If anybody sees a white nigger around, that’s the one.”27 Despite the father’s insensitive racist terminology, the Radleys are presented as a ‘worthy’ lower-class white family, deserving of all the accolades with which enlightened whites like Atticus and Maudie can garner them. (Even the latter errs, though, when she refers to the rumors surrounding Boo as coming from ‘three-fourths colored folks’.28) This is in marked contrast to the depiction of the wholly unregenerate white Ewell clan – who are also, as mentioned before, the largest family in the book by far. They are described thus:
Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economic fluctuations changed their status – people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression. No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.29Obviously, this is not a group to whom we can entrust a postmodern, post-Christian, postracial and (eventually) postgender society. Especially since they live ungratefully ‘behind the town garbage dump in what was once a Negro cabin’30 and Pa Ewell doesn’t realize that the only thing ‘that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.’31 The various strata of Maycomb’s classes can thus be defined by the virulence of their anti-statist prejudice. Significantly, when Scout first uses the term ‘nigger’, Atticus rebukes her not because it’s racist but because it’s ‘common’, something those low-born Ewells would use.32 He even has the gall to frame their societal position in Confederate terms, noting, “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends, and this is still our home.”33 The nuance of Lee’s class dynamic is all the more fascinating for its insidiousness.
Numerous other examples of this caste system appear throughout the novel. Atticus’s sister Alexandra is a refined Southern belle incensed about Atticus’s failure to teach Scout the importance of proper feminine decorum. For example, when Scout complains that she can’t function in a dress, Alexandra’s response is to sniff that she ‘wasn’t supposed to be doing things that required pants.’34 Typical of long-established ladies, she is obsessed with local genealogies and genetic predispositions (“She never let a chance escape her to point out the shortcomings of other tribal groups to the greater glory of our own, a habit that amused Jem rather than annoyed him: ‘Aunty better watch how she talks – scratch most folks in Maycomb and they’re kin to us.’”35) Scout even admits this is a worthwhile pastime, providing it is applied to explaining the likes of the Ewells only and not the (mysteriously rare) shortcomings of black families. Alexandra’s unfitness to make the top tier of Maycomb’s citizenry is demonstrated when her son claims that she referred to Atticus as a ‘nigger-lover’36 – an unlikely choice of terminology on her part, but a plausible sentiment nonetheless. Yet towards novel’s end we are presented with her presiding over a missionary society meeting dedicated towards easing the plight of the poor African Mruna tribe. Hypocritical? Of course. Still, she does not throw in any uncouth two cents’ worth while the other ladies refer to blacks as ‘sulky darkies’ who are unteachable in anything academic and justify their ‘wicked’ thoughts by noting that at least they don’t call blacks their equals while refusing to sit with them, as the Yankees do.37 Perhaps she could act as Queen Victoria in contrast to the Finches’ governing Gladstones.
Other whites presented as an example of class consciousness include:
- Maudie Atkinson, Scout and Jem’s best local pal and the adult character most in agreement with Atticus’s views. A strong-willed widow with a decidedly feminist mien, she displays her independence through her rather flippant laissez-faire attitude towards Christianity. “Thing is, foot-washers think women are a sin by definition. They take the Bible literally, you know.”38 And yet, she also displays a ‘sensible’ obeisance to Atticus – far more than she ever does to God, incidentally: “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.”39 Given her obvious good taste and judgment, she ranks high in Lee’s hierarchy.
- Dubose, a crotchety old remnant of the nineteenth century in fact as Alexandra is in spirit, she refers to Atticus as ‘one in the courthouse lawing for niggers!’,40 which would seem to place her in the Ewell category. However, as she is elderly, with a morphine addiction to boot, she does give Atticus the chance to throw some of his trademark robotic empathy her way – not to mention fortune-cookie-style aphorisms like, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.“41 Little wonder that he calls her a lady of ‘great courage’42 when she expires. Final verdict: hierarchically neutral.
- Underwood, the editor of Maycomb’s newspaper. Atticus makes mention of the fact that he despises blacks, and makes light of his being named after Braxton Bragg (‘…naming people after Confederate generals made slow steady drinkers’43). However, he also covers Atticus with his shotgun from a mob who convenes on the jail to lynch Tom – part of the town’s odd reaction against the pervading atmosphere of racism that seems to envelop the entire South like a poisonous fog. He also receives bonus points for being an avowed agnostic. Based on these criteria, let’s place him in the ‘tolerable, but be prepared to ship him to the gulag if need be’ tier.
- Dolphus Raymond, town drunk. An especially important case, as he represents Mockingbird’s sole miscegenating character. His status can best be summarized in this passage between Scout and Jem:
“Why’s he sittin’ with the colored folks?”Oh, and when Scout and Dill meet him later on, it turns out he isn’t the town drunk after all – that was just a virulent rumor.45 A white man mongrelizing his ancestral family’s lineage. Put him at the very top of the pyramid alongside Atticus! Pity he wasn’t a touch more eloquent, or the book could be about him!
“Always does. He likes ‘em better’n he likes us, I reckon. Lives by himself way down near the county line. He’s got a colored woman and all sorts of mixed chillum. Show you some of ‘em if we see ‘em.”
“He doesn’t look like trash,” said Dill.
“He’s not, he owns all one side of the riverbank down there, and he’s from a real old family to boot.”44
The trial, of course, is the biggest thing to hit Maycomb since Union artillery – one denizen says of it, “You’d think William Jennings Bryan was speakin’.”46 The tensions are adroitly captured in this succinct passage:
“…thinks he knows what he’s doing,” one said.Tom stands accused of raping Ewell’s daughter Mayella – quite a character herself. A surly, stupid girl, we initially feel some sympathy for her as it becomes obvious that she is not used to common courtesy – witness her believing Atticus’s polite tone with her is a form of mockery48 (not an unreasonable conclusion, given the condescension he has demonstrated towards even his poverty-struck ‘friends’.) As it becomes obvious her testimony is false, though – and despite the fact that it is stated that Ewell was prone to use her for a punching bag…and perhaps suggested he used her for even more hideous and perverse purposes – Lee strips away all vestiges of her humanity. Scout’s description of her feelings about Mayella document the entire process:
“Oh-h now, I wouldn’t say that,” said another. “Atticus Finch’s a deep reader, a mighty deep reader.”
“He reads all right, that’s all he does.” The club snickered.
“Lemme tell you somethin’ now, Billy,” a third said, “you know the court appointed him to defend this nigger.”
“Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him. That’s what I don’t like about it.”47
She was even lonelier than Boo Radley, who had not been out of the house in twenty five years. When Atticus asked had she any friends, she seemed not to know what he meant, then she thought he was making fun of her. She was as sad, I thought, as what Jem called a mixed child: white people wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she lived among pigs; Negroes wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she was white. She couldn’t live like Mr. Dolphus Raymond, who preferred the company of Negroes, because she didn’t own a riverbank and she wasn’t from a fine old family. . . . Tom Robinson was probably the only person who was ever decent to her. But she said he took advantage of her, and when she stood up she looked at him as if he were dirt beneath her feet.49One has to wonder if Tom turned violent upon contemplating the ‘injustices’ which slavery wrought upon his station in life and murdered an impoverished white woman like Mayella if Scout would be so quick to consign him to the dustbin of history. One suspects not.
If you’re familiar with the propensity of cultural Marxism to stereotype whites, you can guess how the rest of the trial runs. It’s as predictable as Kabuki theater. Scout, Jem, and Dill take their seats in the balcony with Maycomb’s entire black population to watch the spectacle.50 Ewell’s testimony on behalf of his daughter consists of emotion-laden proclamations designed to get the blood riled up, such as “I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!”51 Atticus disproves Mayella’s assertions that Tom beat her up before raping her, claiming that the marks could only come from a left-handed person and that, in a surprise revelation, Tom’s left hand is withered from an accident.52 (Suffered in Dolphus Raymond’s cotton gin, incidentally – could the entombed guilt which he, as a successful white entrepreneur who was inherently responsible for harming this most noble of all God’s creatures, have driven him into exclusive association with dark company as a form of penance?) When Tom takes the stand in his defense, his (true!) story is that Mayella invited him into the Ewell shack while he was passing by so that he could help her with a bit of maintenance, and then she began getting mighty cuddly with him. Thus, Mayella becomes a caricature of another Southern literary type: the white slut who pants after every black man she can get her paws on, which was already beginning to show up in salacious and slanderous historical revisionist novels like Mandingo. I guess the kiddies brainwashed by Lee’s agitprop in grade school were expected to make the transition to something spicier when they got older.
Ewell breaks in on the party and hollers, “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill ya!” to Mayella.53 Because he’s a degenerate we are supposed to hiss at this, but really: who can blame him? Tom then makes his fatal mistake: he runs. We have to hear the reason for this both from Scout (“Until my father explained it to me later, I did not understand the subtlety of Tom’s predicament: he would not have dared strike a white woman under any circumstances and expect to live long, so he took the first opportunity to run – a sure sign of guilt”54) and from Tom (“Mr. Finch, if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too”55). I’m not sure I get it yet – too bad Mrs. Dubose died earlier in the novel so I couldn’t get an explanation from her too, just to be sure. Also, just in case we weren’t yet sure if Mayella was low-born or not, as the case seems to move against her she begins berating the men as cowards for not stringing up Tom then and there.56 The prosecuting attorney turns out to be an aggressive race-baiter in the best Theodore Bilbo tradition, continually referring to Tom as ‘nigger’ and ‘boy’ and becoming exceptionally indignant when Tom notes that he feels sorry for Mayella.57 His actions prompt Dill to burst into tears and deliver this powerful bit of oratory:
“Well, Mr. Finch didn’t act that way to Mayella and old man Ewell when he cross-examined them. The way that man called him ‘boy’ all the time and sneered at him, an’ looked around at the jury every time he answered –”
“Well, Dill, after all he’s just a Negro.”
“I don’t care one speck. It ain’t right, somehow it ain’t right to do ‘em that way. Hasn’t anybody got any business talkin’ like that – it just makes me sick.”58Truly incredible, isn’t it, how all these characters from displaced or broken homes can display such overwhelmingly unnatural empathy for people with whom they haven’t been acquainted for any length of time, yet are of a different ethnicity? Precious few pets grace the pages of Mockingbird. Perhaps the characters should all get themselves puppies to raise.
About the only non-situational characteristic of the entire trial is the presiding judge, who rebukes Ewell’s garrulousness and threatens him with contempt, and who specifically appointed Atticus to be Tom’s attorney. He is thus presented as a good man, but one powerless to stop the inextricable force of Law bearing down upon him. He cannot make the laws themselves. That will be for the next generation to accomplish.
Up to this point, Atticus’s role in the trial has been relatively low-key – merely asking questions and gently showing up the Ewells as foolish, spiteful clods. Now comes his moment of glory: his closing argument to the jury. And boy, is it something. It reads like a proposed Manifesto for the New International Dixie, which is no doubt precisely what Lee intended it to be. We have our revolutionary Marcusian call to break down societal taboos, disguised as backhanded compassion for Mayella:
“She has committed no crime, she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with. She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance, but I cannot pity her: she is white. She knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it. . . . She was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. Not an old Uncle, but a strong young Negro man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards.”59We have his by-now trademarked contempt of whites not as refined and progressive as he:
“The witnesses for the state, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption – the evil assumption – that ALL Negroes lie, that ALL Negroes are basically immoral beings, that ALL Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber.”60Given how Atticus spends so much time bewailing how racism has touched the very soul of even those few people in town he claims to respect, it seems a rather dubious courtroom tactic to risk alienating his jury in this fashion. But he’s a ‘great literary attorney’, or so the ABA tells me.
We have simplistic sermonizing egalitarianism that ignores propensities in favor of naïve generalizations:
“You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women – black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.”61Ironic FYI: not once in the course of the novel is it ever suggested that Atticus has ever yearned for female company. Be that as it may…
We have the same tired rendering – out of context, of course – of Jefferson’s ‘all men are created equal’ line, with a reminder that the Yankees and the federal government consistently hurl that accusation at the South, with a strong insinuation that the South had better mend its ways in order that both be placated.62
We have a little bit of fraudulent conservatism thrown our way so that we may be bamboozled as to the Marxist nature of Atticus’s words:
“The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious – because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.”63Certainly not all white men are created equal, as Atticus has so amply demonstrated to us time and time again. The noble Africans of Maycomb? That’s another matter entirely. Quick, marry into my family, Strong and Noble Black Man! Principles are passed down via genetics, right?
And for the final crowning touch, we have an awesome contradiction. Atticus solemnly avows that the only way to have equality, and hence virtue, in our time is through the judgment of a benevolent secular court…and then has the audacity to tell the jury, “In the name of God, do your duty!”64 A breathtaking example of hypocrisy if there ever was one.
Well, the jury does do its duty…and finds Tom guilty. Atticus has failed. For all his fancy rhetoric, the Brave New World won’t be established by him. It’s not for lack of effort, though, and the black community recognizes this. As he leaves the courtroom, they stand up to honor him and, tellingly, have to remind his kids to do the same.65 His canonization into State Sainthood has been guaranteed. In case we don’t understand this yet, Lee also has the community bestow ample supplies of that most valuable of all Depression commodities – food – on Atticus’s table, reducing him to tears.66 All three kids, naturally, are devastated beyond comprehension – one gets the sense they wouldn’t have taken Atticus’s death nearly as hard. We are presented with a plethora of nauseating ‘from the mouths of babes’ platitudes such as Jem’s ‘can’t any Christian judges an’ lawyers make up for heathen juries’67 They do have a source of comfort, though…Dolphus. He tells Scout and Jem not to be so hard on Dill’s blubbering, framing it as a cathartic ritual that will prepare him later on to help remake the South in Dolphus’s image:
“Things haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being – not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him.”68But, because feelz are notoriously erratic, not two paragraphs further Dolphus is contradicting himself. Oh well. His heart’s in the right place, and that’s all it takes to build a civilization:
“Cry about the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too.”69
Don’t bother crying about Dolphus’s mulatto progeny though, Dill. They’ll be right there alongside you, the two of you working to get some integrationist governor elected in Alabama. On second thought, scratch that ‘alongside you’. They’ll be your bosses.
The Saga of Tom Robinson finally ends with his being killed while attempting to escape the prison farm to which he has been confined while awaiting his destiny with a rope. Atticus eulogizes him tersely: “I guess Tom was tired of white man’s chances and preferred to take his own.”70 This demonstrates, to my eyes, that Atticus’s concern over Tom’s well-being was skin-deep at best and that he valued him more as a symbolic martyr than as an individual, his pratings to the contrary. But then nobody ever accused me of being overly credulous. Such bloodlessness on his part does not prevent Maudie from all but deifying him, though:
“We trust him to do right…The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I…The handful of people in this town with background, that’s who they are.”71Note that for all her breast-beating, Maudie still isn’t quite ready to admit that the Negro is her complete social equal quite yet. For that peccadillo, she has rendered herself unfit to change the world for the better, just as Atticus has by failing to bring egalitarianism to Maycomb through eloquence alone. Once again, the point is hammered home into our brainwashed subconscious: this is a job for the children alone.
Which leads me to a topic I would be remiss in omitting: the myriad examples of the novel’s small examples of symbolism, every bit as hoary, obvious, and preachy as Lee’s dialogue. A very partial listing of some noteworthy examples:
- Atticus’s famous mongrelization metaphor: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”72
- Maudie’s hatred of nut grass represents the ‘proper’ response to the pestilential scourge of racist elements in society: “She loved everything that grew in God’s earth, even the weeds. With one exception. If she found a blade of nut grass in her yard [Hey! Racists are nuts too, aren’t they? – CM) it was like the Second Battle of the Marne: she swooped down upon it with a tin tub and subjected it to blasts from beneath with a poisonous substance she said was so powerful it’d kill us all if we didn’t stand out of the way.”73 Well, one can’t have a proper revolution without rivers of blood flowing, I guess.
- Jem goes through a brief period of intense interest in ancient
Egypt, making us think of the mythical stories we’ve heard of Africans
being responsible for building the world’s first global civilization.74 Significantly,
it is Jem who can’t properly explain to Scout how to tell a mixed child
apart from a white one and displays considerable ignorance on his own
Japhethic lineage – another sign of Atticus’s gross dereliction of
Scout: “Well, how do you know we ain’t Negroes?”And lest you think the Egyptian motif a stretch, towards the novel’s close Jem mentions that the Finches once dwelt there and ‘learned a hieroglyphic or two.’76
“Uncle Jack Finch says we really don’t know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain’t, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Ethiopia durin’ the Old Testament.”75
- The courthouse clock runs slow, symbolizing the backwardness of Maycomb. And Lee spells this out for us: ‘…a big nineteenth-century clock tower housing a rusty unreliable instrument, a view indicating a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past.’77
- The ‘Southerners as malevolent children’ metaphor is a popular one in the novel, and shows up again when Ewell accosts Atticus after the trial: he spits on Atticus, calls him slanderous names and says, “Too proud to fight, you nigger-lovin’ bastard?” To which Atticus replies “No, too old.”78
- Feminist subtexts abound, the character of Maudie being an excellent example. Even Calpurnia’s saintly black church is as repressively patriarchal as the white churches, according to Scout: “I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen.”79 Later on, Scout becomes indignant when she learns that women cannot serve on juries.80
- When Calpurnia has to leave on an errand during Alexandra’s ladies’ meeting, she and Maudie laughingly take her place as the gathering’s servants, representing the glee whites will feel at being reduced in status in the coming postracial era.81
- Boo makes his belated appearance when he kills Ewell after he tries to accost Jem and Scout after their pageant. Atticus at first thinks Jem killed him – the New South triumphs over the Old – and insists that he go through proper channels in order to clear his name via a plea of self-defense (which, no doubt, would give Atticus the chance to deliver some Ringing Sermons on Truth and Wisdom that he’s been saving for a rainy day).82 Sheriff Heck, wishing to protect Boo from harm, insists that Atticus instead maintain that Ewell committed suicide, a plan to which Atticus finally capitulates.83 His otherworldly powers of insight and his smug self-assurance have failed him. Despite the fact that he also sits in the state legislature, he will not be called upon to make the necessary reforms to make the Soviet Republic of Alabama a reality.
- Boo’s albino-like pallor is described in very sickly-sounding terms84 and very definitely defines him as the makeup of the New Southern Man – strong in body, useful for some things, but still childlike and utterly incapable of any leadership qualities whatsoever. Jem’s book entitled The Gray Ghost further reinforces this – witness its first appearance when the children begin to speculate on Boo85 and its final appearance after Boo has been taken home,86 thus obviously bookending the novel. Also significantly, during Boo’s brief appearance at novel’s end, it is Scout who takes him by the hand and leads him everywhere in the unfamiliar environs of the Atticus home.87 Guess who’ll be leading the stupid proletariat in the revolution?
- The book’s title makes its first appearance after Atticus gives the
kids air rifles for Christmas presents when he tells them to shoot all
the bluejays they want but to always remember, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”88 Maudie describes their character thus:
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”89Thus, the mockingbird is not terribly useful but, as a pleasant diversion, must be allowed to flourish. At first it seems clear that Tom is the symbolic mockingbird. This is proven to us by the editorial that the wise H.L. Mencken-type editor Underwood pens in response to Tom’s trial:
Mr. Underwood didn’t talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand. [Just like Harper Lee. – CM]…He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children…90Yet it becomes clear that the analogy also includes Boo. A mockingbird sings its song in a tree outside the Radley place towards the novel’s end.91 Jem confirms this when he states that to convict Boo would ‘be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?’92 And there you have it. The New South will be a conglomeration of noble blacks like Tom and harmless whites like Boo, presided over by a wise and benevolent tyrant like Scout. I’m guessing Hillary Clinton read the novel more than a few times during her formative years.
“Grieving, child? Why, I hated that old cow barn. Thought of settin’ fire to it a hundred times myself, except they’d lock me up.”97Fire is regenerative. Fire will cleanse all evil out of the land – evil being defined as anything ‘old’. Sherman had the right idea. And her final strategic hint to Scout, the movement’s future leader:
“There are ways of doing things you don’t know about.”98Scout proves to be a mighty fast learner, though. From this point on in the novel, the children’s maturity and their political awakening grow at a Malthusian rate. Their growth is hinted at by other characters, as when Atticus says of their conduct towards the mob during the near-riot at the jail: “So it took an eight-year old child to bring ‘em to their senses, didn’t it?…maybe we need a police force of children.”99 But they’re not just Stasi: reflecting on the evil of his fellow white man, he notes, “They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”100 Jem’s role seems primarily oratorical, just like Atticus: he is more prone to vociferate campaign-style slogans like, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”101 Scout is more dynamic: as mentioned, it is she who takes Boo by the hand and leads him at novel’s end, and at one point she wishes she could be governor of Alabama for one day in order to help out Tom.102 Be that as it may, both have their roles to play, and as both have forsaken their earlier childhood superstitions103 (including, presumably, whatever vestiges of Christianity remain with them), they are ready to prepare the Southern seedbed for the eventual growth of weeds like Martin Luther King.
But hold the phone – they’re still only human. They’ll require help. Who will lend it to them? Lee has the answer for that as well! After all, in a book that hammers us over the head again and again with the solemnity of martyred Negrotude, don’t you think she could spare a few lines in praise of their fellow travelers in poi-secution: the Jews? Yes indeed! Reverence towards the Elder Brothers in the Faith was instilled in the kids by Atticus as well. He relates a story to them about the Ku Klux Klan:
“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, he’d sold ‘em the very sheets on their backs. Sam made ‘em so ashamed of themselves they went away.”104Levy’s religion is not mentioned, but Scout mentions that they were ‘Fine Folks’ (yes, the capitalization is in the text) who had lived in Maycomb for ‘five generations’,105 thus putting them in the Good Liberal White Stock category of class.
And to further drive the point home, in chapter 26 we are further shown a display of bumpkinish, dispensationalist fidelity towards Judah via a social studies class. A hick named Caleb gives his scintillating depiction of events in Europe:
“…old Adolf Hitler has been after the Jews and he’s puttin’ em in prisons and he’s taking away all their property and he won’t let any of ‘em out of the country and he’s washin’ all the feeble minded…Hitler’s started a program to round up all the half-Jews too and he wants to register ‘em in case they might wanta cause him any trouble and I think this is a bad thing and that’s my current event.”106Lest the significance of this escape us, another hick asks why the ‘govamint’ doesn’t stop him.107 Which ‘govamint’ he means isn’t clear, but it is quite likely he was talking about dear Mr. Roosevelt’s. The teacher, Miss Gates (yet another of the novel’s legion of maidens), chooses this opportune moment to naively extol the virtues of democracy and Judah both:
“Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. [You could cut the irony with a guillotine, it’s so thick. – CM] Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced…There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me…the Jews have been persecuted since the beginning of history, even driven out of their own country. It’s one of the most terrible stories in history.”108The Official StoryTM, given extra credence by Atticus’s referral to Hitler as a ‘maniac’.109 So Jewish ‘help’ in fomenting turmoil is available…just not to the likes of Miss Gates, who – shocker!!! – reveals herself also to be a ‘racist’ when she says of the Negroes, “It’s time somebody taught ‘em a lesson, they were getting’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us.”110 Another phony liberal, unlike the real meal deal, the likely-never-to-marry Miss Scout.
And she is ready to venture forth into that good night, by her own admittance: “I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.”111 So onwards into the breeches, young lady – your Scouting days are done and it’s time for you to lead the cavalry charge. And always bear your sanctimonious but flaccid father’s parting words of wisdom in mind:
“Most people are (real nice), Scout, when you finally see them.”112Nice, and very, very pliable. Always remember that.
Therein lies Miss Lee’s tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing good. And remember, above all: this was a book written for teenagers and young adults. Those young girls who read this book during their formative years in large part turned into the militantly egalitarian feminist Grrrl Power devotees we must endure today.
Little wonder that after penning this work, Miss Lee declared that she had said all she cared to say and, by and large, never took up the quill dipped in red ink again. Yet, as mentioned before, this isn’t the end of the Mockingbird/Finch/Ostrich-with-Its-Head-in-the-Sand saga. The summer of 2015 brought forth a previously unpublished ‘follow-up’ work which became an instant best-selling phenomenon.
How does it compare? Is it more of the same programming, or does it go in radically different directions? That is what we must turn our attention to next.
- Michelle Pauli, ‘Harper Lee tops librarians’ must-read list‘, The Guardian, March 2, 2006.
- Marguerite Ward, ‘Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ breaks records‘, CNBC, July 20, 2015.
- All quotes are taken from the Popular Library of Canada edition of March 1962.
- p. 10
- p. 21
- pp. 8-9
- p. 26
- p. 9
- p. 94
- p. 95
- pp. 18-19
- p. 41
- p. 55
- p. 52
- p. 139
- p. 29
- pp. 192-193
- p. 120
- p. 121
- p. 124
- p. 125
- p. 121
- p. 128
- p. 17
- p. 59
- p. 50
- p. 172
- pp. 173-174
- p. 79
- p. 81
- p. 86
- pp. 131-132
- p. 87
- pp. 234-237
- p. 49
- p. 218
- p. 106
- p. 109
- p. 116
- p. 158
- p. 163
- p. 203
- p. 162
- pp. 165-166
- p. 184
- p. 194
- p. 166
- p. 175
- p. 188
- p. 197
- p. 198
- p. 190
- p. 200
- pp. 201-202
- p. 206
- p. 207
- p. 208
- p. 214
- p. 216
- p. 219
- p. 203
- p. 204
- p. 238
- p. 239
- p. 34
- p. 47
- p. 64
- p. 164
- p. 229
- p. 165
- p. 220
- p. 124
- p. 224
- p. 240
- pp. 274-275
- pp. 278-279
- p. 273
- p. 17
- p. 283
- p. 281
- p. 94
- p. 243
- p. 257
- p. 279
- p. 71
- p. 72
- p. 69
- p. 77
- p. 160
- p. 215
- p. 230
- p. 237
- p. 257
- p. 149
- p. 247
- p. 248
- p. 249
- p. 282
- p. 284