Article published on January 28, 2012.
The concept of the “Great American Novel” has always seemed to me like nationalist navel gazing. Aside from an unwavering desire to brand its cultural products (witness a vast number of films prefixed with the word “American”), I’ve always felt there was something triumphalist about American refusal to be content with the more humble term “national epic.” However, I recently finished To Kill a Mockingbird, and my hostility evaporated.
Published in 1960 and set in 1936, To Kill a Mockingbird has spent fifty years being adored, revered, and analysed, to the point where any further comment seems almost redundant. Atticus Finch stands as one of the most iconic protagonists in 20th century literature (and film, thanks to the Oscar-winning exploits of Gregory Peck), and his fictional example has inspired myriad factual forays into the legal profession.
Even those who have not read the book may be familiar with the story at its core. In a small southern town during the depths of the hungry thirties, a lawyer named Atticus Finch is tasked with defending a black man accused of the rape of a white woman. Told through the eyes of Finch’s daughter, Scout, the story examines racial tensions in the deep south, but also examines class identity, gender roles and religion.
Much has been made, over the years, of the simple brilliance of using a young girl as a narrator, and with good reason. Raised in a household free from racial hatred (indeed, with a beloved black housekeeper), Scout’s mind is untrammelled by the ingrained prejudices that afflict many of the townspeople. She is an educated and earnest girl, and through her innocent eyes, racism is seen for what it is; irrational barbarism. Though her later comparisons between American apartheid and Nazi Germany may (unfairly) seem lazy in a world where Hitler has become a verbal weapon in internet flame wars, her intelligence and decency are both heart-warming and a source of hope.
Although it is the court case which has the most cultural resonance, less than half the book is given over to it. The trial thread is introduced, almost as an aside, around a hundred pages in, and the aftermath takes up a hearty chunk of the book; this too is a masterstroke. To end with a verdict would have ignored systemic racism; a not guilty verdict would gloss over underlying issues by providing a moment of triumph, whereas a guilty verdict would imply hopelessness.
Despite Harper Lee’s clear-eyed understanding of systemic prejudice, some have criticised Atticus Finch as being permissive towards the racism of the townspeople, and doing little to confront it on a structural level. These are easy criticisms to make, looking backwards through the prism of the civil rights movement, and run counter to my own interpretation of the character. Atticus is inspirational not because he is a messianic figure in the mould of Dr King, but because he is the best of what can (and should) reasonably be expected of all of us. He has unshakeable integrity, profound courage and an enviable relationship with his children; to denigrate him for not measuring up to the enlightened moral standards of the modern era is, at best, misguided revisionism.
Overall, To Kill a Mockingbird deserves its place at the top of endless top-100 lists. A courageous novel in its time, and still an inspiring one today, it approaches several fundamental social issues with humour, insight and idealism. There are good books, there are great books, and there is a rare third category of book, those which it is morally incumbent on all of us to read; To Kill a Mockingbird is definitely among the latter.