What I’m Reading: Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I was asked to include To Kill a Mockingbird in a course I’m preparing for a group of Russian students coming to the US to take some mini-courses this summer, which presents a certain set of challenges. One, of course, is thinking about what it might be like to read this novel without a clear sense of the context for its racial politics. And the second is the considering what it means to present this novel to an audience of non-U.S. students as representative of post-WWII American literature (the focus of this little class). To Kill a Mockingbird is in a very real way, a quintessentially American novel. It is, after all, the go-to novel assigned to school children in order to talk about racial politics and civil rights. And while the novel is gorgeous and undoubtedly important in terms of the cultural work it has performed, I’m not entirely sure that that’s a good thing.
To Kill a Mockingbird is, after all, an exemplar of what Thomas Haddox calls the “White Civil Rights” novel (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a kind of latter day example), a book that presents racial problems from the perspective of the white liberals who serve as the protagonists and heroes of such works. Atticus Finch is the righteous lawyer who defends a hapless black man against the charge of raping a white woman, a black man who has no voice in the novel and who dies before its close. Furthermore, as Joseph Crespino argues, this is a novel that tends to depict racism as a problem of individual rather than structural bias, advancing the idea that change happens by changing minds, not institutions:
This is the strangeness of Atticus Finch’s career: once a tool of liberal racial politics, Atticus has now become the pawn of racial conservatism. The right, in its insistence on focusing on racial bias on the personal level, glorifies Atticus Finch-style racial heroism. If racism exists only on an individual basis, then racial reform can occur only through individual moral reform—not through social or structural change that might challenge the legal, economic, or political status quo. As conservatives beatify the racial heroism of Atticus Finch, they fight the symptoms of the disease and fail to look for a cure that might get at the issue of white privilege. (26)
This isn’t to say that winning hearts and minds isn’t a good thing or that the role Lee’s novel has played in getting white people to confront prejudice within themselves and their communities. But if this novel is going to be included on a syllabus, it needs to be thoroughly historicized. Crespino’s suggestion is that “we reassign To Kill a Mockingbird from English class to history class and that rather than dismissing Atticus we deconstruct him” (28). I do, actually, think there still may be a place for this novel in literature classes, especially in conversations about canon formation, the cultural work of literature, and censorship. But I, for one, will be immediately following it up with a novel by an author of color from the same era.
Crespino, Joseph. “The Strange Career of Atticus Finch.” Southern Cultures. 6.2 (Summer 2000): 9-30.
Haddox, Thomas F. “Elizabeth Spencer, the White Civil Rights novel, and the Postsouthern.” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly. 65.4 (December 2004): 561-581.