Decades ago, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and immediately declared it one of my favorite books. Then, over the ensuing years, I mostly forgot it.
What I knew I remembered was a trial – thanks, I suppose, to the movie, in which Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch. The Oscar-winning film focuses more on the trial than the Pulitzer Prize-winning book does.
What I remembered without realizing it was the book’s compelling child’s-eye view of life and people and the world.
What I had forgotten, or perhaps could not see then as I do now – for reasons not belabored here – was the utter charm of the book. The human insight in the novel feeds mind, heart, and wit. The prose in which it is wrapped is artful and delicious.
With Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, emerging this summer to much excitement, more than half a century after her acknowledged masterpiece, I naturally thought of Mockingbird when I wanted an audio book for some long July drives. I’ve been listening to more of those. It’s rare lately for me to have both the time and the mental energy to sit and read, but I do sometimes have hours when I can listen.
It turns out that I can get unabridged audio versions of books – I always want them unabridged – at substantial discounts, when I first buy the book for Kindle, or in my case the Kindle app. Sometimes the book is $1.99 and the audio is $2.99, when the audio alone would be several times that by itself. Mockingbird was more expensive, but I still saved money that way. And the quality was excellent; it was read with reliable charm and practically flawlessly by Sissy Spacek, a worthy reader indeed.
I won’t attempt a synopsis or review of Mockingbird here, but I thought I’d offer a couple of snippets and some related thoughts.
Some critics, then and now, I think, have criticized Mockingbird because its narrative is adult prose, filled with adult insights and expressions, even though the first-person narrator begins the book as a six year old and ages only a couple of years by the end.
The dialogue is true to the speakers’ ages, though it is also sprinkled with evidence that some children are precociously verbal and spend an unusual amount of time encountering adult thoughts. In Scout’s case this is mostly in and through the person of her widowed father, attorney Atticus Finch.
The combination of adult prose and childish dialogue works well for me, especially because the narrator establishes on the first page that she is remembering. But I guess a critic has to criticize something.
Over and over again, during my audio reading, I found myself smiling, nodding, or sometimes even exclaiming in appreciation and delight at a particular insight or an especially well-turned phrase. To avoid spoilers, in case you want to read or reread Mockingbird, I’ll choose my examples from the first two chapters.
In the opening chapter Scout – whose real name is Jean Louise – recalls (and here I offer a mild language warning):
When my father was admitted to the bar, he returned to Maycomb and began his practice. Maycomb, some twenty miles east of Finch’s Landing, was the county seat of Maycomb County. Atticus’s office in the courthouse contained little more than a hat rack, a spittoon, a checkerboard and an unsullied Code of Alabama. His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County Jail. Atticus had urged them to accept the state’s generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass. The Haverfords had dispatched Maycomb’s leading blacksmith in a misunderstanding arising from the alleged wrongful detention of a mare, were imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses, and insisted that the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defense for anybody. They persisted in pleading Not Guilty to first-degree murder, so there was nothing much Atticus could do for his clients except be present at their departure, an occasion that was probably the beginning of my father’s profound distaste for the practice of criminal law.
It’s a vivid, telling paragraph on several levels, though there is hardly a childish thought or expression in it. Remember: We’re remembering.
The first dialogue in the book sounds more like children.
“Hey yourself,” said Jem pleasantly.
“I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said. “I can read.”
“So what?” I said.
“I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin’ I can do it . . .”
“How old are you,” asked Jem, “four-and-a-half?”
“Goin’ on seven.”
And so on. I didn’t notice any false notes in the book’s dialogue.
Some Problems Aren’t New
Mockingbird is celebrated for its social commentary, so let’s explore that for a few moments, and I’ll try to stay off my personal soapboxes. In Chapter 2 Scout starts school. It doesn’t go well.
[Miss Caroline] went to the blackboard and printed the alphabet in enormous square capitals, turned to the class and asked, “Does anybody know what these are?”
Everybody did; most of the first grade had failed it last year.
I suppose she chose me because she knew my name; as I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading. . . .
“It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage. . . . Your father does not know how to teach.”
I mumbled that I was sorry and retired meditating upon my crime. I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church – was it then I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me. . . . I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow – anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
Again, the narrative offers an adult interpretation of a child’s thoughts — but appropriately, because this is a book for adults about childhood (among other things), not a children’s book.
Later the same day, Scout is caught in another literate crime:
I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. “Besides,” she said. “We don’t write in the first grade, we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.”
Next, we’re subtly introduced to the idea that blacks in Atticus Finch’s mind – and his home – occupy a slightly different place than elsewhere in the local society. Calpurnia, the black housekeeper/cook/nanny, not only knows how to write, but was permitted to teach Scout. Of the discovered offense of prematurely learning cursive, Scout observes:
Calpurnia was to blame for this. It kept me from driving her crazy on rainy days, I guess. She would set me a writing task by scrawling the alphabet firmly across the top of a tablet, then copying out a chapter of the Bible underneath. If I reproduced her penmanship satisfactorily, she rewarded me with an open-faced sandwich of bread and butter and sugar. In Calpurnia’s teaching, there was no sentimentality: I seldom pleased her and she seldom rewarded me.
It is through Scout’s eyes more than her father’s that we see that poor people are people too, and blacks are people too, and how it’s not strange that white people visit black churches, or that a literate black woman teaches a white lawyer’s daughter to write (among many other things).
Warning: The next paragraph contains a spoiler, if you don’t already know how the trial turned out. Skip it to preserve the suspense.
Looking through Scout’s eyes, we see how viewing others – especially different others – as full-fledged human beings and treasuring their work and character regardless of race simply makes sense. It makes sense even to a child. This is in stark contrast to everyday white justice in Maycomb — which sees an innocent black man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, despite compelling evidence of his innocence.
Don’t Ban It — Read It!
Like Huckleberry Finn, Mockingbird attracts some opposition. Some want it banned from schools, because it uses – in an authentic setting – certain words which are no longer acceptable in American English, if they ever were. I am profoundly suspicious of the urge to disinfect our history – even our literary history – in this manner. Who knows what we’ll do to the future, if we sterilize the past according to our present prejudices? But that is a topic for another day.
As before, I found To Kill a Mockingbird to be a thoroughly delightful book. It is poignant, masterful, intelligent, and witty. There is enough authentic human darkness in it that we’ll never mistake it for a Disney movie, and enough light in it to cast the darkness in sharp relief. I want to read it again already, and I just might.
To come full circle, I can’t imagine why I didn’t already have Mockingbird on my list of great books about childhood (fiction or otherwise) – like Charles Osgood’s Defending Baltimore against Enemy Attack, the autobiographical gems of Ralph Moody (beginning with Little Britches), the childhood portion of Alexander Herzen’s memoirs, and more. I have corrected the omission.
If you’ve read Mockingbird lately, tell us what you thought. If you haven’t, read it soon — and then tell us.