To Kill A Mockingbird is the only novel written by Harper Lee, published in 1960 after several years of rewriting and polishing the manuscript upon the advice of the publisher, J. B. Lippincott and Company. Ms. Lee was born Nelle Harper on 28 April, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children brought into the world by Amasa Coleman and Frances Finch Lee. Ms. Lee attended several educational institutions, including the University of Alabama, where she studied law from 1945 until 1949, and a year at Oxford University. However, she never obtained a degree though she has collected many honorary degrees.
During the 1950s, Ms. Lee worked as an airlines reservations clerk and one year she received, as a Christmas gift from friends, funding that would enable her to take a year off from working so that she could work on a novel. That novel turned out to be To Kill A Mockingbird. When she first submitted the manuscript to the publisher, she was told that it was a ‘bunch of short stories’ and that she needed to refine the work, put all the little ‘short stories’ together. It took Ms. Lee nearly three years, but she finally completed To Kill A Mockingbird and on July 11, 1960, it was at long last published to almost instant critical acclaim—only two years later, the film of the same title was produced, with Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch and young Mary Badham cast as clever little Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch.
Calpurnia was one of the strongest Black characters in the book, and even she resorted to ‘nigger talk’, as Scout so eloquently put it, around her ‘own people’. This leads the critic to examine the use of the so-called ‘N’ word in the novel. Scout Finch, purportedly a child wise beyond her years, uses the word frequently and without much forethought. Jem, a boy, never uses the word and that is something that struck this critic as being odd—in my own experience, I have heard the word ‘nigger’ used by a white female only three times (three different girls under the age of 18), while I’ve heard at least a dozen white boys and men use the word. And yes, the connotations are ugly and hearing it used does make one’s blood boil and the hatred does flow…
However, one can look over how many times the ‘N’ word is used in this novel set during the 1930s in the Deep South (a small Alabama town of all places) when compared with how many novels in which Stephen King, a modern writer who lives in Maine, a state that is over 95% White, uses the ‘N’ word, or some other ugly slur against Blacks…even when there is no cause to do so. The language of the time (1930s) and place (Deep South) has to be considered when examining the use of the word ‘nigger’ in To Kill A Mockingbird. Blacks were routinely referred to as ‘niggers’ right to their faces, as well as ‘darkies’, ‘nigras’, ‘coons’ and called by their first names, while they had to ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, sir’ the Whites, even those that were their junior. While this critic would not say that Ms. Lee had total empathy for the plight of the Negro, as we then called (or ‘Colored’), she did seem to understand enough to be able to write the courtroom scene where poor Tom Robinson had to endure the sneering countenance of the prosecutor, Mr. Gilmer. Tom is clearly afraid for his life, as any Black man had a right to be in those days of the wild-eyed, bloodthirsty lynch mob, and Mr. Gilmer’s attitude was surely one of a condescending bigot.
There are many motifs running through the work, not just the image of the little mockingbird but that of childhood innocence lost, of Southern small-town life during the Great Depression, of racism, poor Whites versus those more well off, the mentally ill, and interracial relationships (as of Ms. DuBose and her colored maid, and Mr. Dolphus Raymond with his rumored Black wife and brood of ‘mixed chillun’). The mockingbird theme clearly applies to both Tom Robinson, accused of raping a poor White woman whom he’d helped out with chores from time to time, and Boo Radley, shunned because he is rumored to be addled in the brain, a pitiful creature that eats squirrels and does weird things by the light of the full moon.
Many reviewers found fault with the prose style, which they stated was more of an adult’s than a six-year old child’s, and even a precocious child as Scout Finch. Phoebe Low Adams (Atlantic Monthly) wrote that ‘It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult.’ However, at the very beginning of the novel, Ms. Lee informs us that the entire work is the recollection of the adult Jean Louise Finch, looking back on a few turbulent years of her childhood.
Some of the reviewers tend to feel that Ms. Lee’s novel is mainly one about growing up in the Depression-era South, and not a story of racial injustice at all. I tend to agree with that particular outlook. When I first read To Kill A Mockingbird, I was sixteen and had to review the story (as well as the movie) for English class. I found it a difficult read at the time, since at that age I was more or less into V. C. Andrews and Harlequin romances—what many term ‘trashy novels’–than I was literature, but the film engaged my interest and I did receive an ‘A’ on the paper that I wrote. At that time, I thought of the book as being more about Jem’s and Scout’s childhood than one of social inequality; that judgment still holds true today, more than twenty years later. The book is extremely interesting to me and clearly defines the relationships between the haves and the have-nots, the more affluent Whites and the Blacks, the poor Whites and the Blacks, and even the ‘normal’ Whites and the ‘abnormal’ Whites—as in the case of Boo Radley. I have read the novel at least thirty times since that first reading, and I never grow tired of the children’s adventures with Dill during the summer months (Dill is actually one of my favorite characters), bright little Scout’s problems in school, and Miss Maudie Atkinson’s bit parts (Miss Maudie definitely had some sympathies toward the plight of the Negro).
All in all, I felt that this novel was well-written, and while some of the words may cause many readers whose vocabulary isn’t very large to go rushing off in search of a dictionary, I find it clear to understand. It is not a child’s book, as Ms. O’Conner put it. It is a book about children, yes, but the novels obviously has some appeal to adults; in fact, it is really a book to be read by those over the age of fourteen…read and dissected and critiqued. It makes one think. Imagine how the United States would be today if we still lived in such rather primitive times? Imagine how the Deep South would be if Jim Crow yet reigned and Blacks had their ‘place’ and Whites had theirs? Imagine how life would be if Emmett Till had not died at the hands of two white racists, thus pushing the Civil Rights movement into the faces of the very people who benefited most from those dreadful segregation laws?
I believe that everyone should read To Kill a Mockingbird at least once. (I wrote this essay, edited for my blog, several years ago for a college literature class. A second novel of Ms. Lee’s has since been published but it was slammed harder by most critics than her first in its day. Ms. Lee passed away 19 February 2016. May she rest in peace.)