Allen Barra’s piece, “What To Kill a Mockingbird Isn’t,” in the June 24th Wall Street Journal took on its author, Harper Lee. Barra, who writes about sports and arts for the paper, contends that the novel isn’t great literature. And we should regret that it is an almost universal requirement for young adults in public schools in the U.S.
The reasons for its selection, however, seem obvious to me. It is a powerful read for an age group that is not reading much these days. It is about race relations in the 1930s and ultimately about Southern justice. The story involves a family structure other than mom-and-dad raising their kids in a New Jersey suburb. It still provokes thoughtfulness and good class-room discussion.
The High Springs Community Theater performed the stage version a season or two ago to enthusiastic audiences. It is a good play.
Barra is right about the novel’s lack of moral ambiguity. There are good guys and bad guys and you can easily identify, what is what. But then a sneer: he claims that its “bloodless liberal humanism” is dated. It turns out that he is after liberal humanists as well.
Harper Lee, who grew up in Alabama during the Depression, is reproached by Barra for her account of the Ku Klux Klan as voiced by her protagonist, Atticus Finch. The Klan in the 1930s focused on intimidating African-Americans and maintaining Jim Crow. It was racist to the core and liked to take justice into its own hands. Atticus, discussing the Klan with his kids, however, explains it as a political force in Alabama. Barra thinks this depiction of KKK is lame.
Historians suggest that this ‘terrorist organization’ and its allies were intending to prevent blacks from participating in elective politics and in sharing the benefits of New Deal legislation. And more generally the Klan opposed any role for the federal government in Southern life. And yes, it was political.
The movie version that came out in 1962 starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. A lawyer, he was appointed by the court to defend Tom Robinson (Brook Peters), a black man accused of raping a white woman. Thus To Kill a Mockingbird’s early years as novel and movie coincided with the civil rights movement in the South. Atticus, however, represents an older tradition of “defying Dixie.” Barra should read Glenda Gilmore. Defying Dixie; The Radical Roots of Civil Rights; 1919-1950. Gilmore contends that the roots of the civil rights movement go back to an earlier generation of Southerners. And they involve people like Atticus who were convinced that Alabamans must move on. Yet the sentiments that Atticus expressed to his daughter were not “the obvious” to most Southerners of that time – or for that matter even Northerners. In the end, Robinson is found guilty even though Atticus came to believe that he was innocent.
Atticus contends that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” In other words Atticus is preaching a ‘cultural relativism.’ And that would no doubt have provoked another sneer from Allen Barra.