At the risk of sounding blasphemous—as if I haven’t already—I will urge anyone who wants to revisit Mockingbird to watch the movie instead of reading the book. Because it is not limited by Scout’s perspective, the movie tells a richer, more complex story. The viewer no longer sees Atticus through the filter of Scout’s adoration. Through the lens of the movie camera, Atticus, as played by Gregory Peck (who won an Oscar for best actor), is not infallible but full of hesitancy, misgivings, doubts about his decisions and his ability to carry them out. Scout sometimes reminds us that her father is old, but in the movie we see Peck move slowly and with a grave weariness, the weight of the world on his shoulders. When Tom is killed, Peck can’t speak but wanders off in a daze of grief.
Surely, one reason for the enduring popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird is precisely this ability to tap into an American civic religion. The book tells us what we want to believe about ourselves as a nation. Because the story is set in the Jim Crow South, it’s nothing short of heroic that Atticus is so determined that Tom Robinson—a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman—gets a fair trial. “Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution,” he says to the jury composed entirely of white men, “but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”
My problem with this book dates back to 1961, when I had a summer job in an oil field in south Alabama, not far from Monroeville, the small town that was in the first flush of its reputation as the home of Harper Lee and the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. My job consisted mostly of clearing brush, but some nights I was stationed at a pump house where I had to read the gauges once an hour; the rest of the time I kept myself awake by reading Southern writers. I was pretty sure that I wanted to be one myself. Keep in mind that, 50-plus years ago, this label Southern writer, now little more than a marketing category, was charged with electricity. In the fall I was going north to college, and on those muggy summer nights, with the humming of the pumps and the susurrus of katydids in my ears, I read a lot of Faulkner. He was my literary god, fierce, remote, and immortal. He was as different from Harper Lee as a bear is from a berry.
One reviewer called To Kill a Mockingbird “that rare literary phenomenon, a Southern novel with no mildew on its magnolia leaves. Funny, happy, and written with unspectacular precision.” In my eyes, that was exactly what was wrong with it. To an 18-year-old under the spell of the South, the book seemed like a sugarcoated myth. Faulkner and other writers of the Southern Renaissance wrote from deep inside the culture and mythology of a place that might as well have been a separate nation, but the famed “tragic sense” of Southern literature—the very thing that gave Southern literature its power and authenticity—is absent from To Kill a Mockingbird. Even though the plot turns on the death of an innocent black man, the tone is jarringly cheerful. Take out the trial and death of Tom Robinson, and the book is like The Little Rascals, all about the pranks and high jinks of a bunch of loveable kids.
As for Atticus Finch, he is an American archetype, a just man who by sheer force of character (and with a little help from his eight-year-old daughter) can stare down a lynch mob. The qualities that he encourages in his children—fairness, integrity, responsibility, empathy—are bedrock American virtues. Nuggets of unimpeachable wisdom drop regularly from his lips, making nearly every occasion a teaching moment. “Atticus speaks in snatches of dialogue,” said Allen Barra in a 2010 essay in The Wall Street Journal, “that seem written to be quoted in high-school English papers.”
Some 40 million copies of To Kill a Mockingbird have been sold, mostly to middle and high school students who have no trouble understanding its teachings. The book is notable, as Thomas Mallon wrote in 2006 in The New Yorker, as “an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious.” Yes, but most influential and well-loved novels endorse the obvious. Lord of the Flies, 1984, Fahrenheit 451—there’s not much complexity or nuance on that list. Today, when every week brings new reports of racial violence and inequal justice, To Kill a Mockingbird remains what it has always been, an introduction for young readers to heartbreaking problems that have no discernible solution.
The success of the movie helped establish To Kill a Mockingbird as one of America’s canonical stories. The novel was published in 1960, and the movie came out in 1962. Together, they created an alternative narrative to the bloody events that marked the Civil Rights Movement of that decade. In the actual South in the 1960s, there were church bombings, murders of activists, assassinations of black leaders.
As for Tom Robinson, I don’t know how anyone who sees the movie can ever forget the searing performance of Brock Peters. In the book, Tom is clearly frightened; on screen, Peters makes the viewer understand the full measure of Tom’s anguish and despair. When Atticus urges him to answer truthfully because he is in a court of law, Tom summons every atom of will in an effort to comply. He wants to trust this white man. Sweating, moving in his chair as if invisible shackles are holding him in place, he tells the courtroom that the white woman made advances toward him, and that he ran from her. He speaks the truth that Atticus has requested, but it is clear from the pain in his voice that he knows that truth is not going to set him free, not in this court. He knows, and we know, that his fate is sealed.
With Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, coming out, it seemed like high time to revisit her To Kill a Mockingbird. For more than 50 years I have felt slightly churlish for not liking the book as much as most Alabamians, and most Americans, did and do. The story of Scout, Boo Radley, and the noble, crusading Atticus might have started as a novel, but it has long since moved up into a more elevated category—cultural touchstone, American classic, national treasure. What did I hold against it?
When revisionist critics (like me) point out shortcomings of the novel, we must respectfully acknowledge that Lee herself had courage, conviction, and a kind of storytelling skill that can’t be measured merely in literary terms. Stories don’t enter the cultural mainstream unless they touch some collective nerve. Out of her own Southern childhood, Lee fashioned a fable that still resonates, and not only with Southerners; it comes as near as need be to a universal story. It catches a sliver of the child’s hope for a world that is safe, kind, and just. In Lee’s vision, the old curse of the South does not lie so heavily upon its children, and her characters are modest, fair-minded, small-town people—good Americans—who make it seem that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.