“It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.” — Miss O’Connor on To Kill a Mockingbird
“Tellin’ the truth’s not cynical, is it?” — Dill
This weekend marks the golden anniversary of Alabama native Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, known unofficially as “that book I had to read in high school” or “that one about Gregory Peck.” Alongside Hank Williams and Crimson Tide football, the book serves as the third element in the state’s holy triumvirate of cultural relevance.
However, though the state will lead the charge in the book’s celebration (I’ve already heard hyperbolic bullshitter extraordinaire Rick Bragg refer to it as “grown out of our own dirt” at least twice on radio), the commemoration will extend beyond the pine belt throughout the English-speaking world. Such is the book’s hold on its readers.
Of course, some of this is due to the story behind the story: Harper Lee, small town girl in the big city, writes a love letter to her father that wins the Pulitzer Prize and then nothing else. Surely some of the book’s appeal also grew ex post facto from the aforementioned Peck film, leading some to call Mockingbird the best book most people can pretend to have read.
But a bookish mystery and an ageing matinee idol will only get you so far. The book itself is a hell of a story revolving around classic archetypes of conscience, fear, hatred, and hope—an equal mix of childhood naiveté, adult terror, and defeatist cynicism.
This makes part of the book’s lasting appeal its pact with readers to take them only so far as they seem willing to go. Scout’s remembrance as a child invites an adult’s interpretation, although some readers may be reluctant to see what’s been left off the page. The children’s optimism is convenient, but not a panacea—not for Tom Robinson, not for Boo Radley, not for Alabama, not for us.
Another of the book’s legacies is its exemplar of the noble lawyer. Because they’re lawyers you can never know for sure, but countless members of the bar claim to have pursued a career before the court solely because of Scout’s dad. Never mind that Atticus Finch isn’t really that good of a lawyer (when you think about it, his defense of Tom hinges on whether the citizens of Maycomb are unfamiliar with the “pimp slap”).
The balance between Atticus Finch’s personal honor and cultural disgrace is a struggle, and some would argue a failure. How honorable can a man be when he partakes of a sham? Is he courageous or delusional? How deep are his convictions when he abandons them as his own family, and not a client, is at stake?
It’s an open question. Had Tom Robinson’s trial gone another way or had he accepted his fate, as Atticus apparently does, would Bob Ewell still “fall” on his own knife? The problem of doing right can’t be addressed only by the written code of the court or the unwritten one from our elders. Otherwise, Scout would be in her pink dress, Boo would be a farmhand, and the rabid dog would still be running free.
But Southerners are suckers for a lost cause. In the end, To Kill a Mockingbird may well be a children’s book, albeit one that illustrates the limits of the law and of one’s personal honor. It portrays the whole South, not geographically but morally, both its myth and its truth. And sometimes, in the way you tell it, the truth can sound like a cynic.