Jul 11, 2010

Killing Mockingbirds: Harper Lee's Vision, 50 Yrs. Later


It has been over a decade since I myself read To Kill a Mockingbird. My thoughts at the time were like those of many uninspired high school students who read it for some Lit class or another. I was inspired, emotionally affected, and pleased to see Southern racism skewed (I grew up in a town that was probably not unlike Maycomb).

I cannot honestly say that I would read it in the same way now. Atticus Finch (portrayed by Gregory Peck in the movie) is ostensibly the white savior character in the novel, and he seems to go to great lengths to defend the homicidal racist whites in the town. Honestly, it's a novel that doesn't stand up as well as a novel promoting racial equality as it did fifty years ago.

That being said, I don't know that all the criticism is deserved. What can be said of many "message" works like Mockingbird are guilty of turning the subject - in this case, African-Americans - into topics rather than flesh-and-blood characters. The book has a purpose, a political undertone, and in that respect the book may be considered bad...but not necessarily racist.

The unintended consequence of trying to "do" something about racism is that it suffers from not being quite as progressive as it could have been. I won't fall into the pit of saying that we shouldn't judge older works by today's morality (because the book certainly could have gone farther in making its case but didn't), but I will defend To Kill a Mockingbird strictly through its own merits.

Books, like people, can achieve great things without being great moral arbiters themselves. In my experience, Harper Lee's novel has inspired hundreds, maybe thousands, of young people to pursue careers in law, specifically civil rights law. That's great (depending on how you feel about lawyers).

Furthermore, the book chronicles how even the most progressive small-town Southern people felt about racism in the south at the time. I'm fully aware of the fact that Atticus Finch was, by no means, the most progressive embodiment of racial equality, but he was also probably a fair representation of how people similar to Atticus Finch actually thought. The problem that many critics have with Atticus Finch as a character is not that he defends racists - he does - but that his idealism had some unintended consequences. He spends much of his time humanizing white people but very little doing the same thing for blacks of the era.

This is problematic. Certainly I will not come out and say that Mr. Cunningham is a good man, but perhaps what Lee was doing in writing the book was mollifying the white establishment while still trying to push the "progressive buttons" in the Civil Rights Movement. It's what causes Atticus to seem too in-the-middle for a modern audience. He would simultaneously defend Cunningham and protect Tom Robinson from being lynched, and in that he goes way overboard in making the whites out to be misunderstood. They really weren't; they were racists. Plain and simple.

It's a difficult issue to tackle, definitely. I would like to say that the book shouldn't be judged simply by the political message (or lack thereof) contained within, but the problem is that the political message is central to the story. It becomes difficult to buy into the novel if you revile Atticus Finch as a character. If his plight is too much, too overbearing, too loyal to the White South, then you probably won't enjoy the book. However, I also don't think we should paint To Kill A Mockingbird with the same brush as, say, The Jazz Singer, because the novel only fails in unintentionally producing a distracting message, rather than genuinely exploiting African-Americans for the benefit of white people. It is probably the reason why "message" books rarely work in the long run.

1 comment:

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