Can a novel ever be too good … for its own good?
The book in question is Alabama writer Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. What serious reader does not know something about the book, its cast and crew, details about the 1962 movie, its associations with Truman Capote, etc.?
After nearly 50 years in print, Mockingbird is surely the most widely read work of fiction about race relations. A staple of the syllabus of high schools and universities all over the world, it still sells a million copies a year.
Harper Lee wrote of small-town life in a racially stratified mid-1930s South. Her story of a heroic father, lawyer Atticus Finch, and his children, Jem and the book’s unforgettable narrator, Scout, felt something like every rural Southerner’s memoir—at least when it came to the descriptions of everyday customs, colorful neighbors, and the sometimes tense/sometimes tender relationship of blacks and whites.
The book came out just 95 years after the end of the Civil War, when most Southerners lived in little towns like the one Lee called Maycomb, her stand-in for Monroeville. These were backwater places where white trash and noble heroes lived just blocks apart, where blacks and whites mingled more often and more intimately than they do today, even while terrible bigotry divided them.
The novel tells of the trial of Tom Robinson, a black laborer wrongly accused of raping a white woman, the ultimate taboo of the time. Lawyer Atticus Finch, assigned to defend Robinson, labors mightily to see that justice is done, despite the color lines, the inherent prejudice in Jim Crow courts, and the mounting scorn from the white community for his efforts.
Atticus’s courage defending Robinson burned him into the American psyche. Atticus was chosen as the greatest American hero of the 20th Century in one notable national poll.
The screen role won Gregory Peck a best actor Oscar, highlighting his notable career.
So how can all this celebrity for a novel be anything but good?
Here’s how. I sometimes wonder if To Kill A Mockingbird states our racial situation so successfully…well that’s it—what more can be said? What writer wants to sit down and write a book about race that will never, ever be so celebrated?
Don’t get me wrong—we’ve had some great fiction about race. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance. William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner. But it seems to me that race relations were, are and will be the great theme of Southern life. And with a triumph like To Kill A Mockingbird as the ultimate declarative statement on race, how easy is it for readers to simply shrug off newer, sharper and more provocative novels?
I’m also suggesting that there’s a comfort level with To Kill A Mockingbird that allows certain readers to snuggle into its pages and resist testing their attitudes about race. There’s an apron-strings factor—I think too many Southerners wishfully identify with the goodness of Atticus Finch…and actually come to believe, somehow, that they were really like Atticus all along. The truth is that we weren’t—too many white Southern men and women simply sat rocking on the porch as changes came.
I’m not disrespecting Harper Lee’s great book. All I’m asking is this: Isn’t there room for other points of view—less comfortable, more challenging—in Southern fiction?
Has the titanic, towering, overpowering success of To Kill A Mockingbird actually silenced a flock of other mockingbirds, writers out there singing with all their hearts, but somehow never as clearly heard?
Charles McNair is Paste‘s books editor. His novel Land o’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.