To reread “To Kill a Mockingbird” in advance of Tuesday’s release of Harper Lee’s much-anticipated follow-up, “Go Set a Watchman,” is not so much an exercise in nostalgia as in cognitive dissonance.
Dissonance? Yes, because even the most sympathetic characters in the novel regard racism with what seems a nonchalance that I didn’t recall.
This is not what I anticipated when I picked up Lee’s book for the first time in nearly 40 years. I was curious to reacquaint myself with her young narrator, Scout Finch (who is also the protagonist of “Go Set a Watchman”), and to see how Lee’s narrative — set in Depression-era Alabama — held up.
I’d read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a ninth-grader in the spring of 1976, and like many readers, I found it memorable both for its acute portrait of childhood and for the tension of its courtroom drama. I was also struck by the novel’s saga of racial injustice, which resonated deeply.
At that time, I was already interested in politics and history — especially American politics and history — and although I’d been assigned to read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I was also reading, concurrently, William Bradford Huie’s “Three Lives for Mississippi,” John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me” and Gary Thomas Howe’s “My Undercover Years With the Ku Klux Klan.” These books described a more recent period in Southern history, that of the 1950s and 1960s, yet when it came to attitude, very little, it appeared, had changed since the 1930s.
When Scout’s father, Atticus, declares, “They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only children weep,” I thought, and still do, that the world he was describing was as much the one I lived in as that which Lee describes.
All these decades later, this is equally — or more — the case. If “To Kill a Mockingbird” suggests (a bit simplistically, I would argue today) that a better day is coming, history pursues a far more complicated pace. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, the nine people murdered last month at Charleston, S.C.'s, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church: These are only the most recent, and most visible, casualties of a hatred that refuses to be reconciled.
Such hatred, of course, is a key conflict in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which tells the coming-of-age story of Scout and her older brother, Jem, in the 1930s in a Southern town. That the town has a tortured history goes without saying, but what struck me most on my rereading was that it did not seem nearly tortured enough.
“Never heard of any Catholics in Maycomb either,” Atticus tells Jem, “you’re confusing that with something else. Way back about nineteen-twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything.” It’s a throwaway line, an insignificant piece of dialogue almost exactly in the middle of the novel, but it tells us something about the world in which we find ourselves.
Atticus is “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” moral center: a single father, member of the state assembly, he is quiet, principled, an attorney who believes in the sanctity of law. The key drama of the book involves his appointment to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, 19 and white, and very much from the wrong side of the tracks.
For Atticus — presented throughout as the voice of reason, of fairness and justice — to dismiss the Klan as little more than a political group suggests how deep the divisions of race extend. “I won’t live to see the law changed,” he says to Jem late in the novel, “and if you live to see it you’ll be an old man.”
History, of course, has borne him out, although that’s not why we turn to literature. Rather, it is to immerse in a territory, interior or otherwise. Here, that territory is the fictional Maycomb, Ala., based on Lee’s hometown of Monroeville. The landscape she portrays, a Depression-era community with roots going back before the Civil War, reminds us how entrenched value systems can be.
“Tell you what, Atticus,” Scout recalls Cousin Ike Finch, “Maycomb County’s sole surviving Confederate veteran,” telling her father during a holiday visit, “the Missouri Compromise was what licked us, but if I had to go through it again I’d walk every step of the way there an’ every step back jist like I did before an’ furthermore we’d whip ‘em this time.”
I don’t mean to critique Lee’s novel by the standards of the present; that’s an unfair criterion to apply. Like all books, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which won a Pulitzer Prize after its publication in 1960, offers a slice of time, a piece of history — both of the moment in which it was written and the one in which it unfolds.
And yet, how else are we to read it if not in the context of what we have subsequently come to know? This is the dichotomy, that we can’t go back, that to read this book now is to read this book now.
For this reason, I can’t help but look at Cousin Ike — as well as Tom and Mayella, and even Atticus and Scout — through a doubled set of lenses in which they operate less as characters than as archetypes: heightened, even allegorical.
There’s Miss Maudie, the understanding elder neighbor, and her counterpart, the hellacious old woman Mrs. Dubose. There’s Boo Radley, the mysterious and terrifying shut-in who turns out to be not so mysterious or terrifying after all.
In much the same way as Atticus’ bromides — “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” — such elements strike me now as less than realistic, more the stuff of myth. And not just any myth, but one as inevitable as that of Sisyphus, in which persistence is the only victory.
Or as Atticus reminds us, explaining why he took on a legal case he almost certainly would lose: “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”
That’s all well and good, I suppose, or, at least, it used to be. Looking back, I suspect this is why I admired the book so much as a young reader, and also why it continues to move young readers even now.
We live in a different time, though, in a world where inevitability is neither excuse nor consolation; even South Carolina seems likely to remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds.
Perhaps the problem is that we know too much, that we are no longer satisfied by such simple, homespun truths. Perhaps it’s that I’ve grown too old to read this novel, that Scout’s coming to awareness seems too slow to me.
Regardless, all those books I read with “To Kill a Mockingbird” — I had assumed by now their stories would be ancient history. That they aren’t, and that in a very real sense Lee’s novel isn’t either, says less to me about the lasting power of language than the intractability of prejudice and how it perseveres.
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