Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

On July 11, 1960 — 50 years ago today — Harper Lee's first and only novel was published. To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of an obscure trial in a tiny Southern town during the Great Depression, told in the voice of a feisty young girl named Scout Finch, has become such an iconic book, such an integral part of American culture, that it seems timeless. Mockingbird is both widely read and widely honored. More than 30 million copies have been sold, at a current rate of 750,000 per year; it has never been out of print and has been translated into more than 40 languages. According to a 2008 survey, it's the novel most frequently read by students in grades 9 through 12. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and the faithful 1962 film based on it won three Oscars and is still considered a classic. Mockingbird was named the best novel of the 20th century in a Library Journal poll of American librarians, and in 2006 British librarians named it the No. 1 book people should read before they die. (The Bible came in second.)

Lee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 from George W. Bush, who called her book "a gift to the entire world." And if that's not enough badges of honor, it's No. 23 on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books.

On the occasion of its golden anniversary today, encomiums abound. HarperCollins has published a handsome 50th anniversary edition of the novel and has a website, tokillamockingbird50year.com/, that lists dozens of events celebrating it, ranging from panel discussions and marathon readings across the nation to a four-day party going on now in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala. That town is the model for Mockingbird's Maycomb and once again the home of the 84-year-old author, who for decades lived much of the time in New York City, largely avoiding public life.

HarperCollins has also published Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Mary McDonagh Murphy. In this collection of interviews, writers, civil rights activists, celebrities and friends and family of Lee talk about why Mockingbird was significant to them. (See excerpts, right.)

In his foreword to Scout, Atticus & Boo, novelist Wally Lamb (The Hour I First Believed) puts Mockingbird in high-flying company: "In terms of literary heritage, I think of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye as Mockingbird's older brother and Huckleberry Finn as the father of both books. All three novels, each a product of its era, give voice to outsider American kids trying to negotiate an adult world full of hypocrites."

Lamb writes that Mockingbird was the first book he read straight through as a teen, the first book that "captured" him in its world: "I didn't realize that literature could do that."

I first read Mockingbird as a teen, too, and though it wasn't the first book to capture me, it made an enormous impression. Atticus Finch's defense of Tom Robinson was galvanizing to a kid like me, growing up in the South in the 1960s in the midst of the civil rights movement.

But I was struck even then by the book's writerly craft as well — the utterly genuine quality of Scout's voice, the sly humor, those genteel ladies "like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum" on hot afternoons. And if there's a more thrilling, heartbreaking moment on any page than the courtroom scene's "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin', " I don't know what it is.

Aiming at Atticus

Like any enduring book, Mockingbird has its detractors, and not just the would-be censors who try to have it yanked off library shelves and school curricula.

Critics and other novelists have been dissing the book practically since it was published. The great Southern fiction writer Flannery O'Connor famously said, "I think for a child's book it does all right. It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they're reading a child's book."

Maybe that was O'Connor being snarky — or maybe there was a mix of envy and truth there, since Mockingbird is in the best sense a child's book, an innocent's initiation into the world told in a way that can move readers young and old. O'Connor didn't exactly specialize in innocence.

Others have criticized Mockingbird for a laundry list of sins: sentimentality, melodrama, stereotyping, pomposity, underwriting, overwriting, racism, reverse racism, liberal politics, unfit parenting and glorifying a lawyer.

New broadsides mark its 50th anniversary. Putting aside everything else Mockingbird does so well — its crystalline evocation of small-town life and the now-extinct free-range childhood, its challenges to gender roles and insights into mental illness — most of these critics focus on how the book treats its main subject, racial injustice, and on Atticus Finch as a hero. It's enough to make Scout put her fists up.

Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, Blink) fired off an early salvo last year in the New Yorker, judging Atticus not "a civil rights hero" but a wishy-washy racial moderate along the lines of 1950s Alabama Gov. "Big Jim" Folsom. Folsom's respectful treatment of black people as individuals, Gladwell writes, never translated into systemic change; similarly, Atticus' personal integrity and challenges to the racism of his community are ineffectual "Jim Crow liberalism" that could never bring about justice.

In June in the Wall Street Journal, a column by Allen Barra, an author (Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee) and book reviewer (who sometimes writes for the St. Petersburg Times), disputed Mockingbird's status as a classic of American literature.

Barra criticizes Lee's style, but he, like Gladwell, is mainly interested in Atticus, a character he deems too good to be true, a simplistic cardboard hero rather than a character rich in ambiguities. (I just reread Mockingbird, and I have to say that Atticus, much as I love him, is full of flaws, secrets and ambiguities. Just for example, he sends his young kids to tend a morphine addict in withdrawal, and he colludes with the sheriff to cover up the real nature of a death. Mr. Too Good to Be True? I think not.)

Barra also shares Gladwell's opinion of Atticus as an ineffectual opponent of racial injustice, writing that the book's "bloodless liberal humanism is sadly outdated."

Well, sure. In a book published 50 years ago and set more than 70 years ago, some things are bound to be outdated, especially politics. But if Atticus' stand on fighting racism seems outdated to us now, that can be credited in some small part to Mockingbird itself.

Atticus' small and failed effort is the tragedy at the book's heart, the very thing that makes it memorable. We see him take a stand — remember, this is Alabama in 1939 — that could get him and his family killed. And it isn't enough. If Mockingbird were melodrama, Atticus would win.

What struck me as odd about both critiques was that Gladwell and Barra write about Atticus as if he were a real person, some guy getting a job evaluation. All of Atticus' and Mockingbird's power as a force for social change lies in story. Their impact is on the reader.

Atticus doesn't overcome America's original sin of racism, and we haven't overcome it yet. But we have traveled a long way from 1939, and from 1960. As Gladwell writes, it does take big movements to make big changes, but big movements start small, with one person witnessing an injustice he cannot dismiss and standing up. Another person sees him, and that one stands up.

Sometimes that witness happens in real life; for many Americans, it has happened in the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.

If Mockingbird's depiction of a culture of racism and one man's doomed but noble stand against it seem dated to us half a century later, it is in part precisely because the book has done its work.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' 07/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 9, 2010 1:34pm]

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