Sunday, July 11, is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” With that in mind, we asked a few members of the University community to give us their thoughts on the novel—in hopes that they will prime the pump for your additional comments. So, see what they have to say, and then tell us what you have to say about this novel.
Suzanne Keen, Professor of English:
“In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Atticus suggests that a person doesn’t know the other until walking in his shoes for a while. The novel affirms the value of empathy felt with others. It enacts the difficult process of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, even when the neighbor seems alien, terrifying, even monstrous. That it takes the trusting perspective of a child to bring the despised others into the empathetic circle also reminds readers of when they were younger and less suspicious. It’s a beautiful book that made a timely intervention in the civil rights movement when it was published, but it holds up, not preaching but exemplifying its central loving message.”
Marc Conner, Professor of English:
“Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a classic book of the early 1960s. It stands at the gateway to that troubled decade, but unlike other such novels that give dire warnings of the corruption in American society—one thinks of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ (1951) or ‘Catch-22’ (1961)—Lee’s novel also reveals courage, morality and compassion. It is noteworthy not just for its strong moral center in the noble attorney Atticus Finch, but also for its poignant portrayal of American childhood in the figure of Atticus’ daughter, Scout. Scout joins a long line of American child narrators that stretches back to Huckleberry Finn and includes Hemingway’s Nick Adams and Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin—but she is the rare female narrator in that vein. Lee’s novel pushes the boundaries of race in America, but also balances our propensity for violence with our impulse towards fellow-feeling. It is a deeply moral book in an age that seemed to lose sight of America’s moral center.”
Kary Smout, Associate Professor of English:
“I love ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I think it’s one of the most influential novels ever written about the American South. I would teach it in my college Southern Literature classes, but it is so widely taught in middle schools and high schools, especially in the South, that many of my students would be re-reading it. I’d rather just talk about it with them and assign them to read something else. It also does not have the stylistic difficulty or the symbolic richness of works by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty or Cormac McCarthy, for example, but it has been more widely read than any of these works. A main reason is the young narrator, Scout, whose voice makes it an ideal book for American teenagers. She is reflecting back on her brother, her dead mother, her friends, her father and some of the key moments in all their lives, especially on moments when her father’s integrity cost him as he stood up to the virulent racism in their hometown of Maycomb, Ala. Teenagers love to think about these issues, and so do their middle school and high school teachers.
“I just finished helping one of my senior English majors, Amy Conant, finish an honors thesis on rhetoric in legal fiction, on her way to Washington and Lee Law School this fall. One of the four major novels she chose to include in her study was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ As we studied it together, she told me it’s her favorite book of all time. In the thesis, she concluded that Atticus Finch is the best lawyer she knows of in literature and one of the most admirable characters she has ever met. He perfectly embodies the Washington and Lee ideals of honor, civility and integrity.”
Ted DeLaney, Professor of History:
“Harper Lee published ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in 1960, some six years after Brown v. Board of Education. One of the main complaints among white segregationists at the time was the possibility of social integration. They predicted ‘amalgamation of the races,’ ‘mongrelization’ and so on. They wrote graphic letters to Virginia’s governors asking them to prevent these things. That Lee focused on the sexual accusation of a white woman against a black man seems to zoom in on that theme and speak to racial injustice.”
And your thoughts?