On Preparing to Re-Read To Kill a Mockingbird

The first and last time I read To Kill a Mockingbird was in 1983 in Darjeeling. Well, I read it many times that year but I haven’t read it since. I was in class 8 at St. Paul’s, a once-great boys’ boarding school set up in the 19th century by the English as “the Eton of India”—a claim that must have rung hollow long before I got there (these days the school remains in firm decline and no one bothers to recycle the claim). Our English teacher, the formidable Mr. Bhatnagar, had single-handedly decided to make us read books that probably very few Indian thirteen year olds were reading in school. Tragical, Comical Historical, Pastoral, a compilation of extracts from Shakespeare was one; To Sir, With Love was another, and very thrilling in its account of unruly student behaviour of a type we couldn’t even dream of perpetrating (I remember we were all very confused by the scene featuring a burnt sanitary napkin). But the one that made the greatest impression on most of us on whom books made any kind of impression was To Kill a Mockingbird

We came to Harper Lee’s great book as we came to almost everything we read in school (or later in college), whether in English or Hindi or Bengali (in order of decreasing fluency): with no sense of historical or literary context. We didn’t know when the book was set and I don’t think we even really paid attention to when the book was written. Not that it would have mattered: in general we knew nothing at all of American history outside the names of a few presidents, and we certainly knew almost nothing about black history (whether in America or elsewhere). We knew vaguely perhaps that there had been slavery in America and that Abraham Lincoln had ended it in the 19th century but beyond that neither our nor our teachers’ interests went. The West to us anglicized Indians was still entirely England.

I don’t mean this as any sort of indictment of our education: this probably describes all too well the level of knowledge that American high school students today have of Indian history. I mention it because I want to underline the fact that for those few of us in 1983, in a faded corner of the Raj, for whom To Kill a Mockingbird became an important book it did so in a way that was likely different from the way it did for my American contemporaries: we did not pick up on the historical cues and allusions that were doubtless all over the book; and it did not come to us as a holy book about our history or even anyone else’s history. Indeed, it was for us largely a book outside history. It was a book about childhood and learning to be good, which meant to be nice to people. I can’t say the lesson took very consistently but it was articulated in an emotional idiom I could instinctively understand.

This in turn I do not look back at now as a naive, limited reading. I haven’t re-read the book in 32 years—this because it’s not a book I’ve ever wanted to find fault with when read with older eyes/literary sensibilities or find diminished like so many other seeming monuments of childhood; instead I’ve let my greater knowledge of American history, acquired over the 23 odd years I’ve now lived here, fill out the book in my memory, as it were. Still, my sense from reading and talking with those who’ve continued to read and talk about the book (especially now) is that “a book about childhood and learning to be good, which meant to be nice to people” is a pretty good description of the core of the book. If it weren’t that, none of the other things it is also (and has come to be) about would really matter. This was apparently the opinion of Lee’s editor as well: as we’ve all come to learn now in the hoopla around Go Set a Watchman, she urged Lee to rewrite her original draft from the point of view of Scout as a child.

But you don’t need me to tell you that To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel about childhood or that it uncannily delineates a child’s expanding vision and its limits. And it’s certainly very likely that my memory of the book, read only when I was still mostly a child, has emphasized its depiction of childhood over all else that it is about. However, I wonder if my original reading of the book may be an unintentionally accurate description of the limits of more historically informed readings of the book as well. In the furore around the publication of Go Set a Watchman, and especially in the context of the ongoing upheaval in the public discourse and consensus about race and racism, it has increasingly come to seem to me that for some fraction of liberal, white Americans To Kill a Mockingbird may indeed function, even as a historical novel, in much the same way: as fundamentally a book about childhood and learning to be good, which means to be nice to people.

I don’t mean that these readers don’t see the historical context of the book any more than I and my classmates did in Darjeeling in 1983. I have a more allegorical reading of the book’s contemporary reception/reputation in mind: I suggest that it presents to these readers, first, in its setting and the moment of its publication, an insulated shameful past that is past (childhood); and, second, in the gradual quickening and widening of its plot, in the passing of the locus of readers’ identification from Scout to Atticus, a mode of escaping that past without shame (coming of age into political consciousness—a transition Scout does not make but the reader does). Atticus’s confirmation as a secular saint (32 years later I still remember vividly Calpurnia telling the children to stand up as he leaves the court) is also a confirmation of the story of American racism as something done by other kinds of white people in a different place-time. The refusal of contemporary racists to leave the shameful past simultaneously confirms the release of that past’s hold on white liberals who have come to understand overcoming racism as largely a matter of interpersonal decency (and not a matter of overcoming far more challenging, deeply-sedimented institutional problems): of being nice to people.

I’m not suggesting, if I’m right, that the book is flawed for this reason; though if it were written today we would doubtless note en masse that it is a book in which a good white man is transfigured through his noble failure to save a passive black man from bad white people. All writers write from within the limits of their experience and Lee does not overreach, as I recall, in representing those outside hers—whether black or very poor white. And if Atticus, post-Gregory Peck, in particular, has become the secular saint who does the kind of work for liberal, white America that I’ve indicated above, it is worth remembering that the Atticus of the book is quite an enigmatic character. (It’s also worth remembering that in its own time the book was received very warmly by black Civil Rights leaders.)

My comments here are not, at any rate, meant as an indictment of the book in any way; nor am I suggesting that this is the only or even the principal appeal of the book to its dominant readership. To repeat myself, I am wondering if the continued afterlife of To Kill a Mockingbird, its place in American culture, may come not only from the fact that it is one of the greatest novels about childhood ever written but perhaps also, at least partially, from the fact that it may have allegorized for a few generations of liberal, white Americans a comforting story about themselves. (And I hasten to add that I do not intend to indict liberal, white Americans either; many of my best friends are liberal, white Americans.)

This might explain, I think, the full nature of the outrage from some quarters at the news that the older Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is a segregationist, a racist. It is not simply, I think, that the book provides a revision of a beloved story and its characters: not too many people seem outraged to meet an older Scout per se or to discover that Jem is dead, for example. The claimed desecration of the figure of Atticus troubles not just the memory of a beloved character but the story that character has helped its dominant readership tell about itself. (You can sense some of that anxiety in Jacob Brogan’s piece on the controversy over the new book: in the notion of a readerly fear of the loss of Atticus as the good “father” and in the reassuring of people that their Atticus cannot be taken away.)

It may be the case though that this more complicated, composite Atticus figure—the two not-quite converging Atticuses of the two books—may be a better guide to the contemporary, frayed story of putative post-racism. The Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird, in the allegorical reading I sketched above, seems out of place, 55 years after the book was first published, alongside continuing crises like Ferguson (or the various other spectacular racist crises of recent years). The segregationist, Klan meeting-attending Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, however, seems more of a piece with the more uncomfortable stories told by writers from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates: that events like Ferguson or the slaying of Tamir Rice are not violations or irrational remnants, but symptoms of a condition mainstream America continues to refuse to see as foundational to its story. Some of the sense of violation that some readers apparently feel about the new book may speak to a sort of nostalgia for an earlier, simpler, happier narrative of progress. (Kevin Young refers to something similar in his judicious review of Go Set a Watchman, wondering if Harper Lee would have been as beloved if her famous book had taken on darker questions.)

Atticus-revisionism is not, of course, the only reason that people are unhappy about the new book. There seems to be an understandable fear that reading Go Set a Watchman, by all accounts a far less assured and accomplished work, will damage or distort not only their memory of beloved characters but also their view of Harper Lee’s artistry—something which now seems miraculous precisely because it produced only the one book. Even knowing that the book is not a sequel—that this is not what the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird became but how he was originally envisioned—does not dispel that anxiety. After all, not everyone is interested in the literary-analytical questions that Michiko Kakutani says students of writing will be intrigued by (see the 8th paragraph of her review). This, as I say, is understandable but finally irrelevant: why should Harper Lee be bound by her readers’ expectations?

Then there’s the question of Harper Lee’s actual agency in the publication of this book: is she being taken advantage of by people around her? That seems to me first as a slightly odd question in a world where holograms of dead artists are performing at Coachella. Second, maybe she is being taken advantage of but I can’t remember anyone worrying about Harper Lee before this book was announced (and she was apparently never very happy about the cottage industry around her book). But I can’t imagine there being two Harper Lee books out in the world can possibly be worse than there being one Harper Lee book, even if the second is far worse than the first or, more likely, simply not as good.

Me, I hope to read Go Set a Watchman soon—though as someone who teaches and writes critically about books for a living it’s hard to find time to read books I’m not going to teach or write critically about. And I think that after I do read it I will finally go back and re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. And when I do I won’t be surprised if I find a more complicated book about race and politics than either I or the popular mythologies of it remember. Maybe it will be a childhood monument that will expand rather than shrink with my changed perspective.

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