To Kill a Mockingbird is the finest piece of American fiction written in my lifetime. It’s also my favorite movie ever. The book’s author, Harper Lee, now nearly 90 years old, never published another one (though rumor has it we’ll see a second book this summer). Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and Harper Lee has been awarded nearly every literary award you can imagine.
The book is told through the voice of a young Southern girl in the middle of the Great Depression. It’s largely autobiographical. The young girl, Miss Jean Louise, nicknamed “Scout,” is a self-described tomboy living with her widowed father, Atticus Finch, an older brother Jem and a housekeeper, Calpurnia. Narrated over a period of three years, lots of friends and relatives come in and out of her life.
Though controversial when published in 1960, especially in many Southern enclaves, for its stinging rebuke of Jim Crow laws and a “separate but equal” culture, the book received high praise from liberal activists and big city literati for saying what needed to be said at a time in American history when it needed saying. For most readers, To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful indictment of racism, bigotry, ignorance and injustice. A centerpiece of the book is the capital trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. The man is clearly innocent but cultural circumstances prevent justice from righting a wrong conviction.
Of course, I see all of that too. But I also see much more. To Kill a Mockingbird is much more than what liberals want it to be. In fact, I argue that the book is much the opposite. Yes, there is Jim Crow racism and ugly, detestable bigotry throughout. But there is more in it that is noble and moral and uplifting. The American South is a good place, not a bad place. I’m not one of those defenders of the “war of northern aggression” or a defender of the confederate flag. I don’t long for the days of plantations or even Jim Crow. But I do think that modern Americans can learn a great deal about the importance of customs, traditions, faith and family from Lee’s detailed novel about the American South in which she grew up.
The goodness of the American South as depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird lies in the expectation of personhood. Modern liberals only see what’s missing, not what exists and surely not what is to be expected from each other. For modern liberals, what’s only expected, but falls short of expectation, they call hypocrisy. Harper Lee’s south is surely a place of weakness, shortcomings, disappointment and, for many of her characters, hopelessness. Modern liberals focus on these sad characteristics as proof of a deep-seated culture of irreparable injustice. But the real story of To Kill a Mockingbird centers on basic decency, civil respect, social codes and personhood – a very conservative worldview.
After Tom Robinson is convicted of rape and sent to prison, Harper Lee has Scout and her brother, Jem, question the kind of important people in their small community who would execute such injustice and question their respected neighbors who would allow those important people to get away with it. At that point in the story, we see Harper Lee’s real commitment to humanity – an aunt reminds the children that what they just witnessed was, of course, sad and unfortunate, but also hopeful. The aunt explains the meaning of progress embodied in people like their father, Atticus, and even the judge who wisely and purposefully appointed him as the public defender for Tom Robinson. She opens the eyes of the children to the prospect of the goodness all around them.
Custom, tradition, community, faith and family comprise a conservative worldview. What’s bad about these social institutions is that they’re very often slow to change. But what’s bad does change eventually and it changes precisely because of its social roots, not in spite of them. Modern champions of liberalism think To Kill a Mockingbird condemns the old ways when, actually, it does just the opposite. If you’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird, you should.