A magical classic turns 50
[First published on Mercatornet.com] To Kill a Mockingbird is a magical book. That is the word. From the moment of its publication 50 years ago it radiated magic. To this day you may with confidence place it in the hands of anyone, anywhere, of any age, race or gender and know that if they do not love it, they have missed something transcendent.
The first thing to be said to clarify the magic is that its portrayal of childhood is wonderful. I mean this not as a stock word of praise from an author afraid of blundering stylistically if he writes “magical” again. I mean it literally: Mockingbird captures the wonder of childhood.
Once Scout and Jem befriend the visiting Dill, their familiar world cracks open with a series of delightful fissures caused not by the shattering impact of evil, though it surrounds them, but because it is expanding wonderfully and must do so. They are able to have a series of new adventures undreamed of before it all started yet somehow perfectly natural once they are happening. And this, to me, is one of the outstanding features of a good childhood.
I should interject autobiographically that I was fortunate enough to have a happy childhood including reading many books whose spell never entirely faded. Mockingbird was not among them, and when I first read it in my early 30s I was inclined to add to my very short list of regrets about my life that I didn’t read it as a kid. Try as we might to become again as little children, almost nothing that happens to us as adults seems to have that luminous quality of immanence that pervades a happy childhood, where every day or week may bring some new, unexpected wonder larger and richer than we have yet experienced.
On reflection I’ve changed my mind on that point. Part of the magic of the book for me when I did read it was its uncanny capacity to conjure up overpowering flashes of childhood (including the plan to lay out lemon drops that Boo Radley would follow “like an ant”). I believe I relished these far more for being an adult.
If all the book did was remind you of what childhood excitement felt like it might be at best a minor classic. But it did far more. It made sense of that excitement.
Mockingbird has had its share of detractors. Not just racists who objected to its obvious and compelling refutation of their position but critics and other authors who found it childish, naive, unworthy of study. At the risk of seeming all these things myself, I would suggest that their real problem is that the book is hopeful.
When a Virginia school board was considering banning it as “immoral literature” in 1966, Harper Lee wrote a stinging letter to the editor whose key passage was “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”
That response underlines the two key reasons the book is so important. From an American, and especially southern American perspective, the book is an act of statesmanship. Not some Yankee ridiculing of mean rednecks, it was a key part of the redemption of the South, a reminder that however deep the currents of racism might run, there were other currents deeper still (a magic from before the beginning of time, one might even say) that were incompatible with it.
Generations of southerners, including Confederate soldiers, might have been at once honorable and Christian and bigoted. But it was an unnatural combination and in their hearts they knew it. Indeed, the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s depended upon finally getting white southerners to admit to themselves that they did know it.
This deep magic is not limited to time and place. In reminding white southerners of this thing they always knew about their particular situation, Mockingbird reminds all of us of the things we always know about our situation whatever it may be, knowledge we cannot evade but struggle to heed. Atticus Finch is not just a man who knows what he must do. Almost anyone can manage that. Atticus Finch is a man who knows he must do it, and does it, and we wish we were more certain that we were like him.
Atticus stands for truth against the mob. He faces down his own fears and therefore other men’s viciousness. He meets with triumph and disaster and treats these two imposters both the same, and so shows his children what the meaning is of a world that keeps opening new and marvelous vistas for them. And again I use “marvelous” with etymology aforethought: The world is full of marvels and Mockingbird knows it.
Its particular and often dark marvels make it to some extent a “coming of age” book. Within its pages we see Scout growing up a little; three years is a long time when you’re six and her childish conceits about “hants” and so forth become a bit more mature within its pages. Outside its pages, in part because of the flashback narrative technique, we sense what sort of adult she will become, in large part through the influence of her father and other adults, both good and evil. And thus we know that “coming of age” is not just a matter of growing bigger and more self-aware, or self-absorbed, while eventually discovering girls or boys.
The transition from childhood to adulthood is above all about morality, about becoming one of those who does take responsibility for what is right and wrong. In this context it has been suggested that Mockingbird’s “coming of age” theme is tragic, as the characters come to grips with failure. Such critics clearly missed the magic. What Harper Lee tells us in this story is that success and failure cast lights and shadows in this world but take place within us. Atticus is never a failure even when he fails. Nor will his daughter be.
If like Han Solo we explore the world around us we’re bound to see “a lot of strange stuff”. But that’s not the marvel. Nor is it real growing up. The magic, the expansion from childish wonder to the adult kind, is realizing that life means something, something incredibly important and boundlessly joyful: The fundamental structure of the universe is moral not material.
That is the magic at the core of To Kill a Mockingbird. And it has only gained in brilliance in the last half century.