To Kill a Mockingbird- some thoughts during The Big Read

Just ran across a little essay I wrote about TKAM some time ago:

I think that one of my favorite quotations from To Kill a Mockingbird is on p. 298 in our version, where Miss Maudie says “…we’re making a step- it’s just a baby step, but it’s a step.”
This comes after the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1930’s Alabama. Atticus Finch, the attorney, defended Tom and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt to all readers that Tom is innocent; but Tom is convicted, anyway. The novel came out in 1960 and has been lauded ever since as a great novel about civil rights.

I’ve re-read this book recently for “The Big Read” and even though this has been on my list of recommended reading for all graduates, I’m having some second thoughts about the book. Something is bothering me and I may not even know what it is until I start writing about it. I want to find some criticism by the likes of Toni Morrison or even Zadie Smith. What do revisionist literary critics have to say about this novel? And what do black readers think of it?

I think the film is quite different from the book: the film concentrates mostly on the trial and the race issue. I think most people are picturing the movie when they think so fondly of TKAM. The book, for me, was more a series of vignettes of small town life, only one of which is the trial. In fact, not much is said for almost 200 pages about the Tom Robinson issue. There is more about Boo Radley and Mrs. Dubose. By p. 284 the trial is over and then commences a lot of self-congratulatory stuff by the whites about how Mr. Atticus was such a good white man for defending Tom even though he knew he could not win. I think that this book was a terrific eye-opener for whites back in the 1960’s, but today, it just strikes us as too “our massuh such a good white man…”
The black people in the novel are 2 dimensional. The main characters are Jem, Dill, Scout, and Atticus. Even Boo Radley is more multidimensional than any of the black characters.
We hear that Tom has died in prison, shot by guards as he tries to escape, even though Atticus wants to launch an appeal. And then the plot returns to the children and Boo Radley. No problem really that Tom is dead as long as the white children are saved from the supposed white racist. In fact, blacks are compared to birds in that their deaths are akin to the senseless killing of birds. I wonder how this strikes African American readers.

The book gets a little preachy with the comparison to Nazi Germany- surely something that the white South needed to hear in the 1960’s but it seems a bit overdone here. Now the trend in fiction leans toward understatement, whereas this spends too much time laying it on the line.

I must not forget that in the 1960’s we were still baby stepping, and many such baby steps have been needed to lay the foundations for the day when this nation can see beyond racial lines enough to elect our wonderful new black president. This book was definitely a baby step along the way. And our country needs to take a whole lot more baby steps even now.

I’m not questioning Nelle Harper Lee’s racial sympathies. She was at odds with her peers, did not fit in with the sorority crowd at U. of A., and as a writer she was exposing some things that needed to be exposed. She agonized over the book, rewriting it 3 times. She poked fun at the missionary ladies in the living room going on about the savages in Africa being saved by some white Christian guy. She made fun of having to become ladylike. I could identify; I used to plot how I was not going to wear girdles or slips or hose when I grew up! She really pointed up a lot of hypocrisy in the lives of Southerners and probably many North Americans. I respect her for that. She was a bridge between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Toni Morrison. She wasn’t trying to portray the African American experience, just the white experience of that era. She may have been caught in that space of time that many of us well-meaning whites in the South were caught in: the time between consciousness and action; between realizing our mistakes and doing something about them; between Martin and Malcolm. And something tells me that the book has outlived its usefulness other than for historical purposes, and that another better American novel should take its place as the lesson in black/white relations. So- I wonder what it could be…… and it isn’t The Help.
Julie Adams