The Unity of Man
By Gabriel Blanchard
Few authors offer us a more straightforward moral, or one with greater power.
Very few names on our author bank get there with only a single title to support them; even Homer, whose biographical details are thoroughly lost to the mists of time, has two epics to offer us. Harper Lee produced only one complete book, To Kill a Mockingbird. (The novel Go Set a Watchman, published to some controversy in 2015, has been confirmed to be an earlier draft of Mockingbird rather than an independent work.) Asked in an interview near the end of her life why she didn’t publish more, Lee answered: “One, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
Her novel certainly did earn a great deal of publicity. By only a year after its publication, it had been translated into ten languages, spent more than forty weeks on the best-seller list, and won a Pulitzer Prize. It has remained a staple of American literature curricula since, and has never been out of print since its publication. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Lee the the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country.
Told through the eyes of Scout, the young daughter of Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch, much of the book is about her, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill, playing, going to school, and making up stories about their reclusive neighbor “Boo” Radley. But he main story revolves around a legal case: a Black man, Tom Robinson, has been accused of raping a white woman, and a large proportion of the town is set on lynching him. Atticus, appointed as Tom’s public defender, makes it obvious that the accusation is blatantly false, but the jury, driven by racial prejudice, convicts anyway. Before Atticus can appeal the verdict, Tom is killed trying to escape (or such is the official report), and Tom’s accuser attacks Atticus’ children, only for them to be rescued at the last moment by Radley.
The lens of childhood through which the story is told allows it to handle its frankly disturbing material—racism, sexual assault, judicial corruption, and lynchings—with a surprisingly hopeful tone. Several figures, Radley in particular, are transfigured over the course of the book, from seeming alien and dangerous in the beginning to proving innocent and kind. At the same time, the injustice of Tom’s trial is a watershed moment for the children, particularly Jem. To Kill a Mockingbird has been classified as a Bildungsroman, or coming of age story, precisely for this deft mixture of bright innocence with the dawning of a harsher light of maturity in a deeply flawed world.
Despite its popularity, the book has provoked negative reactions as well. Some critics have argued that the characters of color in the novel (such as Tom himself or the Finch family’s maid Calpurnia) are not fleshed out the way the white characters are, and that the novel suffers from a “white savior” tone in consequence. Others have objected to the book’s use of racial slurs, a criticism that has also been leveled at Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and called for it to be removed from school shelves, or at least from curricula; but here there is a strong case for the social honesty that writers like Twain and Lee evince. If we tried to write either history or fiction about a racist society but were unwilling to include uncomfortable facts, we would have to settle for something very bland indeed, and certainly wouldn’t be able to get any emotionally realistic or factually truthful narrative out of it. We cannot appreciate the unity of man without entering into the experiences of our fellow men and women; and that, by the very nature of the thing, must happen on their terms.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this author profile of Mahatma Gandhi, this discussion of the Federalist Papers, or this “Great Conversation” essay on the idea of desire. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.
Page image shows the cover of the first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960.