Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Another Look at To Kill a Mockingbird

Charles McNair, in Paste Magazine, recently asked whether To Kill a Mockingbird is too good. Is the success of To Kill a Mockingbird keeping other southern writers from writing about race relations in America?

I sometimes wonder if To Kill A Mockingbird states our racial situation so successfully…well that’s it—what more can be said? What writer wants to sit down and write a book about race that will never, ever be so celebrated?

I have no idea, not being a writer, much less a Southern Writer. My first thought was that surely others have successfully written novels about race in America since Harper Lee. And McNair addresses this:

Don’t get me wrong—we’ve had some great fiction about race. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance. William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner. But it seems to me that race relations were, are and will be the great theme of Southern life. And with a triumph like To Kill A Mockingbird as the ultimate declarative statement on race, how easy is it for readers to simply shrug off newer, sharper and more provocative novels?

In other words, why should a modern writer write a newer, sharper, more provocative novel about race relations if it will simply be ignored? I don’t know – maybe because the novel is in them and they have to write it even if no one wants to read it? Again, the criticism seemed off base. If anything it might be better leveled at publishers who aren’t out there seeking (i.e. paying for) these types of novels and/or marketing them.

In fact, McNair’s ultimate question seems a question that should be put directly to publishers: “I’m not disrespecting Harper Lee’s great book. All I’m asking is this: Isn’t there room for other points of view—less comfortable, more challenging—in Southern fiction?”

I agree with him. I fully endorse the idea that novels with other points of view – uncomfortable, challenging points of view – need to be out there. Any writer who has it in him/her should let it out and write it. And publishers should be looking for these novels.

But let’s get back to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Is it too comfortable? Is it not challenging enough? By the standards of the year it was published? By today’s standards? McNair “suggests” that the novel has a “comfort level” that “allows certain readers” to resist “testing their attitudes about race”. He says:

I think too many Southerners wishfully identify with the goodness of Atticus Finch…and actually come to believe, somehow, that they were really like Atticus all along. The truth is that we weren’t—too many white Southern men and women simply sat rocking on the porch as changes came.

This is interesting and bears some thinking about.

Let me make a confession. I’ve always been a bit bored by discussions of Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch and the trial. It isn’t that I want to ignore the trial – it is the plot- turning, heart of the novel, after all, it cannot be ignored. But discussion of the injustice done to Tom Robinson seems too easy in 2009. There is no challenge to understand what Lee was saying about it. And she never made it difficult to understand the facts of what happened if a reader was willing to admit to them. This isn’t the problem in 2009 that it probably was in 1960. I can understand how discussion of this issue would have been novel and difficult back in 1960 but the issues and conclusions seem so self-evident in 2009 that the conversation mostly seems repetitive to me.

Is this the “comfort level’ that McNair is concerned keeps us from testing our attitudes toward race? That we are, today, so comfortable discussing past racial injustices we can delude ourselves into thinking we would not have participated in them? That we would have been Atticus? That in 2009 we think we have solved all racial injustice? Perhaps. There is an argument to be made for that. But personally, I don’t think my indifference to discussing the issues once again means I don’t understand the past or the present.

And I’m not deluding myself that I’m Atticus. I don’t have a calling today to work on the front line against social injustice so I doubt I would have had it back in the day. On the other hand, as a woman I probably wouldn’t have been in Atticus’ place anyway. Or on the jury. Or a guard at the prison.

I might have been Mayella though. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have lied on the stand but it’s easy to think you’d behave better when you haven’t lived that life. Or I might have been Aunt Alexandra. Or Miss Maudie. Or, god forbid, Mrs. Dubose or Mrs. Radley. In my more reclusive moments I can imagine myself as Boo Radley. And I could have been Scout, although I wasn’t much of a tomboy as a child. Jem always seemed more like me, somehow. I never imagine myself as Calpurnia but I don’t think Harper Lee intended me to. There is an untouchable quality to Calpurnia that makes imagining myself as her more impossible than the simple difference in skin color.

And all of this brings me to where I always end up in these discussions: asking why, if the only thing we’re to discuss is the issue of the racial injustice done to Tom Robinson, did Harper Lee write the rest of the novel? Why did she create such vivid women characters alongside Atticus? Why do we know so much about their lives? Why did she make it a coming of age story about Scout? She didn’t need to if we were only to discuss the story of Tom Robinson, Atticus and the trial; if we were only to try to judge where we would have stood on the issue of the trial; she could have written a short story only about that. Why, when we discuss the rest of the novel, does it seem somewhat disconnected from the story of the trial and its aftermath?

I’ve always thought that Harper Lee intended it to be disconnected because she was trying to depict the real life of an upper middle class white girl and that’s the way real life is. Disconnected.

I am not Southern. I did not grow up in a small town. I am a woman living in 2009 looking back at a childhood in the 1960’s; I am not a woman in the 1950’s looking at a childhood in the 1930’s. But I do have things in common with the world Harper Lee created. I am an upper middle class white girl. And I live in a city that is just about as (perhaps more) racially segregated than many southern cities. Race relations is one of the biggest issues (most studies say it is THE biggest issue) facing my city. And it has been that way since I can remember.

The City of St. Louis still has no legal control over its own police department stemming from issues that arose during the Civil War. Legal segregation in schools and housing and employment may have ended long ago but de facto segregation is alive and well. Political correctness may put a pretty veneer on our day-to-day conversations but the attitudes behind the use of objectionable words in To Kill a Mockingbird have not disappeared and will often peep out in polite society. In non-polite Missouri red-neck society they are still right there in the forefront. So race relations were, are and will be the great theme, not only of Southern life, but of life here in St. Louis.

And yet …

And yet most people don’t talk about it. Race relations is, to most upper middle class white people including me, mere background noise. We go about our daily lives – working, shopping, cleaning, raising children, playing, praying – and don’t give it much thought. Occasionally something will happen and out attention will become focused on it because it is impossible to ignore it. It is as if we tune the radio in at that moment and listen. And then discuss. And worry. But in general it isn’t we who are involved in whatever it is that has happened. We are mere observers. Then it is over and we turn down the radio and race relations fade back into background noise where it is easy to delude ourselves that it is not having a negative impact on our lives. We are a society still very much like Scout and all the people on her street except Atticus. We are privileged to lead a comfortable life where distasteful things seldom impact us. We lead the lives that others are nostalgic for.

McNair could have meant this when he used the word “comfort”. He could easily have meant the nostalgic quality of the novel. By recreating small town life in the 1930’s, and mostly the small town life of women, the story is enveloped in a nostalgic haze that disguises the fact that upper middle class white people, as a group, haven’t changed all that much in some ways.

Perhaps the way that Lee chose to tell her story, the comfortable nostalgic way that she sets the scene and the fact that she uses a young girl’s point of view, makes it easy to ignore this and not ask the hard questions. Judging from the discussions I’ve been involved with about the novel, in general this is not something that is much talked about.

Oh people talk about the parts of the novel leading up to the trial – but they talk about the colorful characters Lee created and how they seem so real. And they talk about Boo Radley. And maybe they talk about Jem’s conclusion that, given what is going on in the world of Maycomb, Boo Radley may be right to be reclusive: Scout I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time ... it's because he wants to stay inside. But that’s about as far as they go.

I’ve always thought it was very effective for Lee to tell the story as a story of childhood. How better to represent the ability to easily tune in and out of the “important” things in life and make that seem a normal way to act than to use a child’s point of view? How better to show how someone can be emotionally affected by the story of Tom Robinson and yet never dream that it would actually affect her day-to-day life?

Lee is masterful in having the trial occur long before the end of the novel. The trial sneaks up on us just as it sneaks up on Scout. It isn’t mentioned at the beginning of the novel and even when Scout starts to get wind that something is going on, it isn’t really something she spends a lot of time dwelling on. Interest in it flares up and then subsides as information comes up and then no new information is forthcoming. And then it happens. Just as the trial was the most exciting part of the novel it was the most exciting thing that had happened in Scout’s life. But when it was over – life went on. The novel continues for quite a while. Scout goes back to school. She continues her “social training” from Aunt Alexandra. There is another little flare up when we learn of Tom Robinson’s death. Scout is emotionally affected by his death but – life goes on. Tea still needs to be served. That’s what she learned from Aunt Alexandra and Miss Maudie.

When readers say that everything about Maycomb seems so real, that’s because this is what life is really like. We don’t live life focused every moment on the “important” world or community issues; every moment of our day can’t be focused on the life changing aspects of the world around us. Most of life is full of the everyday things in life – cooking and gardening and doing the laundry. People sometimes have problems in their own lives – drug addiction or a catastrophes like their house burning down or their mother getting remarried to a man who doesn’t like them. So, as important as something like the Tom Robinson trial might be, it is only a part of life and then life goes on. And if you are Scout or you live on Scout’s street you might think it won’t affect you personally.

Unless something out of the ordinary happens. Unless Mr. Ewell decides to use you as a tool of vengeance for what happened at the trial. Unless the attack by Mr. Ewell means you have to leave your seclusion to help the neighbor kid that you’ve loved from afar.

To Kill a Mockingbird may be a story of race relations but it is mostly a story of white people. The end of the novel is only about white people . The ending of the novel is shocking because life had gone back to normal. And Mr. Ewell’s evilness is only really made manifest to us when he attacks a white person – and a white child at that. The evilness of Mr. Ewell can only be counterbalanced by the goodness of the one person in the story, Boo Radley, who is, literally, the whitest of the white people in the novel. And although that ending is shocking it is shocking in a comfortable kind of way because it involves lots of characters we’ve grown comfortable with as we read through the book. Can we really test our attitudes about race with a novel that ends this way?

Yes, I think it is possible. I think To Kill a Mockingbird is challenging. Every time I read it I get something new out of it. I think that’s why it has lasted as long as it has. But I agree that its comfortable prose may give certain readers, and book discussion leaders and book reviewers the excuse for avoiding some of the challenges.

So, in the end I think McNair’s point should not be ignored. To Kill a Mockingbird should not be considered the ultimate novel about race relations. It cannot be. It was not intended to be. It is a novel almost completely about white people. It is also a novel, as I said last year, of little steps.