Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was released 57 years ago today, and it is a well-beloved story by millions.
However, I am one of the few who never understood why it was so important to read it in ninth grade, and I still don’t understand why it’s continually on required reading lists for schools. I believe it’s vastly overrated. Why, then, are we still reading it, when there are dozens of other books that could easily take its place?
It wasn’t even all that well-received when it was first written, either. Flannery O’Connor denounced it with,
“I think for a child’s book it does all right. It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book.”
People today treat it like a great literary masterpiece. I feel like the writing style and the simpleness of the book does cement it as a children’s book, but not a very good children’s book, at that. That’s not to say that demoting something to “Children’s Literature” is demeaning, because there are some very good aspects and facets of Children’s Lit (just take a look at The Hobbit). But that’s an argument for another time.
A few years ago, Go Set a Watchman was released to the public for the first time. I was working at Books-a-Million at the time, so I bought the box set. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird before setting into Go Set a Watchman, and I finished the novels with this insight: “I think it’s an okay book — not anything as incredible as people are saying. I did like Go Set a Watchman better. The editor had the right idea — write from Young Scout’s point of view — and I wish To Kill a Mockingbird had contained some of the flashbacks that were in this book. Worth a read, but I wish they’d edited it a bit to fit consistently with To Kill a Mockingbird. Some things are just way out of line.” [Taken from a Facebook post of mine on July 19, 2015.]
I remember people being furious over Atticus Finch’s mindset in Go Set a Watchman. But I want to tell them, he hasn’t really changed all that much from Mockingbird. Sure, he may be a little more racist in Watchman, but in Mockingbird, he was perfectly content to let the so-called “white trash” be the villain instead of racism. Malcom Gladwell, author of the editorial in the New Yorker, had this to say about Atticus’s exit from the courtroom after Tom Robinson is convicted:
If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.
You should read the rest of the article (linked above) to learn more about Jim Folsom. It’s an interesting read, and it helps cement my understanding that Mockingbird is not the great champion of racial relations in the South that many of its fans claim it to be. Gladwell goes on with this:
In the middle of the novel, after Tom Robinson’s arrest, Finch spends the night in front of the Maycomb jail, concerned that a mob might come down and try to take matters into its own hands. Sure enough, one does, led by a poor white farmer, Walter Cunningham. The mob eventually scatters, and the next morning Finch tries to explain the night’s events to Scout. Here again is a test for Finch’s high-minded equanimity. He likes Walter Cunningham. Cunningham is, to his mind, the right sort of poor white farmer: a man who refuses a W.P.A. handout and who scrupulously repays Finch for legal work with a load of stove wood, a sack of hickory nuts, and a crate of smilax and holly. Against this, Finch must weigh the fact that Cunningham also leads lynch mobs against black people. So what does he do? Once again, he puts personal ties first. Cunningham, Finch tells his daughter, is “basically a good man,” who “just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.” Blind spots? As the legal scholar Monroe Freedman has written, “It just happens that Cunningham’s blind spot (along with the rest of us?) is a homicidal hatred of black people.”
The more I read into this, the more I realize that they’re right. You can dig into “negative reviews of TKAM” as much as you want, but not all of them mention the passiveness of the supposed heroes in this novel.
Since I live in Alabama, whenever I mention I don’t like Mockingbird, I’m met with gasps of horror. “How can you not like it?” people squeal at me.
Simple. It’s not that well-written. Also, it’s not nearly as much of a champion of racial relations as you want it to be.
Of course, don’t take my word for it. Do some research for yourself. Reread the book (I’m betting it’s been years since you read it, even if you claim it’s one of your “favorites”). It’s not my cup of tea for numerous reasons, but maybe it’s yours.