Revisionist fire at author Harper Lee should be dampened
Fifty years ago Sunday, a novel hit America's bookshelves that changed the way millions thought about race and the inexplicable South.
Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," by some estimates the most-read book in American schools, has grown old enough to have become slightly dotty in the minds of fresher readers, many of whom have only a textbook understanding of the way things were.
Indeed, it is fashionable to dis, as we now say, the great and humble Lee, a writer so without vanity that she has declined all attention to herself since the publication of her novel in 1960 and continues to live quietly in her home town of Monroeville, Ala.
As a heroine, she deserves to live out her days without having to hear the din of critics wielding hindsight as virtue. Yet lately, Lee's famous and only novel has earned special scorn as critics opine about the way things should have been, not only in real life but also in the artistic treatment of the era.
Writing a story in the Jim Crow South about a white lawyer who defended a black man against a charge of raping a white woman was an act of courage, make no mistake. And though Atticus Finch, the protagonist-lawyer, might seem bland by today's standards, it is unfair to label him a paternalistic defender of the status quo, as Malcolm Gladwell did last year in the New Yorker.
Gladwell, who marvelously describes culture in ways that cause us to blink in recognition of tipping points and to wish to be outliers all -- not to mention forcing us to embrace a newly coined vocabulary without which we are helpless to address the zeitgeist -- is perhaps less attuned to the ways of fiction. With all due respect.
For "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a story -- a parable designed to move hearts and minds -- and not a manifesto for radical action. Yet this is what Gladwell and others would have preferred. Gladwell, who finds common cause with George Orwell's criticism of Charles Dickens, wishes that the author had made Finch a man sufficiently outraged by racial injustice to seek systemic change, rather than merely be a decent sort willing to defend a black man wrongly accused.
Orwell similarly criticized Dickens, who, he complained, never offered solutions to the problems he illuminated. (This has a familiar ring.) But isn't it a lot to ask that the artist, in addition to exposing societal disease, also cure it?
Walker Percy, another Southern novelist and my muse in such matters, said that the artist's job is to be a diagnostician -- "to give the sickness a name, to render the unspeakable speakable." That "art is making; morality is doing."
"This is not to say that art, fiction, is not moral in the most radical sense -- if it is made right. But if you write a novel with the goal of trying to make somebody do right, you're writing a tract -- which may be an admirable enterprise, but it is not literature."
In July 2010, we might be more comfortable with an Atticus Finch who was less compassionate toward his racist neighbors. In explaining people and events to his young daughter, Scout, Finch noted that these were not bad people (even though some did want to commit violence against blacks), just misguided.
From where we sit today, this attitude is both ludicrous and offensive. One can't distill "not bad" from what is clearly bad. But, then, who is to say that Lee thought otherwise? Sometimes truth is better received through a reflex of recognition than by a blow to the head. Remember, too, Finch was trying to explain a hateful world to a child in terms familiar in the church-going South: Hate the sin, love the sinner.
My own recollection of the book, which I first read as a child, was that it was full of hard and ugly truths. The story, because it was revealed through the eyes of another child, caused me to understand injustice as no textbook or lecture ever could. Such is the power and mystery of literature.
To kill a mockingbird is a sin, Finch told his children, because it brings no harm to others. "They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us," a neighbor further explained.
Likewise, trying to kill a great book because a 50-year-old literary character doesn't measure up to modern critics' idea of heroism is a sin. All Harper Lee ever did, after all, was sing her heart out for us.