My English department colleagues and I can spend a whole lunch break making fun of To Kill a Mockingbird. A literary roast punctuated by sarcastic regurgitations of Atticus Finch’s sanctimonious advice. Just, you know, take a walk in her shoes, dude, I might sneer, interrupting a teacher’s account of an encounter with a difficult student’s unpleasant parent. Most of us have to teach the novel every year, and our irreverence springs from discomfort. We’re tasked with teaching a book that doesn’t live up to its longstanding responsibility.
In ninth-grade English classes around the country, To Kill a Mockingbird is supposed to deliver a reckoning with American racism. In the 2012 documentary Hey Boo, Oprah Winfrey calls it “our national novel.” Written by a white woman, To Kill a Mockingbird was published at the dawn of a civil rights movement distant to high school students accustomed to dutiful but shallow observations of Black History Month. The teenagers of today, in my experience, chortle (and bristle) at racist memes on Instagram, explore trollish sectors of Reddit, and absorb frequent police shootings of unarmed black men. As a chronicle of our country’s racism, To Kill a Mockingbird is quaint, ill-equipped to deflect turds flung by an evolved state of bigotry. Even before the 2015 publication of a controversial sequel, Go Set a Watchman, and a more recent legal battle over Aaron Sorkin’s newly opened Broadway adaptation, writers have scrutinized Atticus Finch’s flaws, some suggesting that the novel be excised from high school curricula.
The problem isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird as much as how teachers have learned to teach the novel—the way our teachers taught us when we were in high school, which reveals more about our past and present relationship with race than the book itself. I agree with much of the contemporary criticism I’ve read (although not complaints that the book is too audacious in its message or raw in its language). Still, To Kill a Mockingbird lets students assail a book’s long-proclaimed importance, which is common in college, but less so in high school, where literature is usually presented as something to “get” more than attack. With To Kill a Mockingbird, I can help students, like Scout Finch, lose some innocence (and ignorance) about their country. A book exemplifying our ailments may be a better starting point than one that claims to have transcended them.
I teach very few black students in Marin County, a punchline for moneyed liberal dippiness, home of hot tubs with Mt. Tam views, elk reserves, and George Lucas. Yet my public high school’s student body is 65 percent Latinx, and in the days after the 2016 presidential election, a handful of these students reported heckling by town residents as they walked to school. Both white and Latinx students marched out of class in protest of the election results, but a contingent of white counterprotesters wore familiar red hats and swaggered among them. Three boys whooped in a jeep booming the late, racist country singer Johnny Rebel. Months later, a Latino student accidentally grazed one of their cars in the school parking lot. Via slur-riddled Snapchat posts, the owner of the car, let’s call him Darren, threatened to deliver a beatdown. After serving a suspension, Darren left school to avoid tension with classmates and teachers. His friends considered a retaliatory walkout. Some faculty fretted over Darren’s diminished college prospects while others wondered how bigotry could bubble over in enlightened Marin. But most knew racism had always been there—in the isolation of newcomer immigrant students, in the white students’ domination of student government and Homecoming courts. Brown students walk to the bus station after school as white classmates steer newish cars out of the lot. After the Darren incident, the school convened student panels and hired consultants to lead professional development lessons, but I figured that my approach to teaching could help heal my school too. From experience, I knew a classic (and mandated) text like To Kill a Mockingbird could make discussions less immediately confrontational. The responsibility felt even more urgent at the beginning of the 2017 school year when unrest over a Confederate monument saw a self-professed neo-Nazi kill a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, when a racist jury threatens to condemn a black man for a crime he didn’t commit, defense attorney Atticus Finch valiantly tries the case he’s supposed to throw, insisting upon the purity of an obviously flawed American justice system. “Some men were born to do our unpleasant work for us,” says Finch family friend Miss Maudie. Lawyers, like former FBI Director James Comey for instance, or former President Barack Obama, often revere Atticus. Perhaps in homage to both Gregory Peck and the character he immortalized, actor Casey Affleck named a child after him. In 2017, Atticus was one of the most popular American baby names, a testament to his towering status. Still, nearly 25 years ago, in my Louisville, Kentucky high school English class, the Finch family patriarch was badly miscast as a civil rights crusader. From listening in on the lessons of teacher colleagues at multiple schools, despite the recent critiques, I’m pretty sure many (probably most) teachers in the United States still peddle some version of the worshipful narrative I was expected to embrace at age 14: Atticus, a hero for his time (the 1930s), his author’s (the late 1950s and early 1960s), and our ever-shifting present.
This pedagogical tradition reflects a lazy analysis of the book. Transforming Atticus Finch from icon to naive man of fundamental decency but narrow vision doesn’t require a deviation from the text, just an honest interpretation.
For a well-read lawmaker whose family name is synonymous with fictitious Maycomb County, Atticus poorly understands how much bigotry shapes its inhabitants. He relentlessly, gravely sees the essential good in people who present to contemporary teenage and adult readers as various strains along the spectrum of villainous to ignorant and misguided. In the book, he’s almost lynched along with his client, Tom Robinson. His children are nearly knifed by a racist, drunk sex criminal Atticus refuses to ever consider a serious danger despite his repeated threats. When Jem asks about the influence of the Klu Klux Klan in mid-1930s Alabama, Atticus dismisses his concerns with privileged detachment. The Klan may have lost members in the late 1920s, but it didn’t feel like “a political organization” without “anybody to scare” to the families of four black girls murdered in Birmingham three years after the novel’s 1960 publication. In a mockery of evidence, Atticus supplies the story of a lone Jewish citizen embarrassing some faint-hearted Klansmen with the revelation he’d sold them the sheets covering their faces. Even Scout’s half-literate classmates (themselves young bigots-in-training) understand that “old Adolf Hitler” is evil, but Atticus makes a grand show of telling her and Jem that it’s not okay to hate him—or anyone for that matter.
As a member of the Maycomb County elite, Atticus has little experience with being on hate’s receiving end, and once he gets his taste, unlike Tom Robinson, he sustains relatively minor wounds: insults from Ms. Dubose, spittle in his face courtesy of Mayella Ewell’s real tormentor, and injuries to his children’s bodies that leave them bruised, even, in Jem’s case, slightly disfigured, but certainly alive. Atticus saves his fiery passion for threats to the courts (those “great equalizers”) because they theoretically involve white law enforcement officers, judges, and jurors doing the right thing; readers have no evidence the book’s events reshape his view of Maycomb and America. Considering Atticus emphasizes the essential niceness of “most people” to a convalescing Scout on the last page of the book, it seems likely, Go Set a Watchman’s unpopular revisionism notwithstanding, that Atticus maintains his status quo. He luxuriously learns nothing, hardly coming of age at all, and although Martin Luther King arrives in a few decades and America trips forward, it’s pretty clear that Tom Robinson will presage other deaths, real deaths.
Harper Lee gives students alternatives to Atticus. In her only appearance in the book, Lula confronts Scout and Jem when Calpurnia brings them to church for Sunday service. The Finch family housekeeper, Cal, has applied Atticus’s maxim about walking in the shoes of others, a worn piece of advice that most years I simulate by asking students to document routines in one another’s homes. At the town’s black church, where white people gamble weeknights, Lula is the sole member of the congregation to question the white children’s presence. Rebuking her, the congregation proves as welcoming as the white community is exclusive. At Tom Robinson’s trial, after Atticus concludes his stirring closing argument about the importance of fair courts, the congregation stands respectfully from their prescribed section. Does Lee mean to show that black people reject segregation because they know the pain it causes? That Lula’s separatist impulse mirrors the sentiments of white people who question her humanity and intelligence? Maybe we’re supposed to clap when the community backs Jem and Scout intruding on a rare black safe space for healing, for solidarity, for strength-building, but I prefer to have faith in Lee’s talent. For all her supposedly “contentious,” “haughty,” and “fancy” ways, Lula never reduces the humanity of Scout and Jem. She just notes that they’re invaders, giving them a tiny taste of what she has always known (and also pointedly asking if Cal is considered “company” at the Finch house). Lula and Cal would never be welcomed into a white congregation, regardless of who brought them.
Ironically, when I ask students to compare, in a response essay, Lula’s prejudice with that of white townspeople, typically a slim majority of them see no difference. To many, judging someone on the basis of skin color is wrong, and the power of white people to define and exclude black people doesn’t make racism worse than the self-preserving actions of black people. Maybe Lee wants us to see that prejudice is a two-way street (as some of my students claim in their writing). But given Lula’s limited screen time, Lee does too masterful a job at portraying her as powerless as well as impassioned, incapable of being heard by her own people, much less altering the white power in her midst, even when its envoys are two timid children. As Reverend Sykes harangues his congregation for abstracted sin with the same fervor as the white preachers Scout knows (and collects money for the Robinson family), Lula comes across as brave and realistic, attacking the essential unfairness of the scenario.
Students are usually surprised when I remind them that Atticus never explicitly denounces racism or impugns the characters of townspeople who revel in it. His warning that his children’s generation may have to “pay the bill” for crimes against black people smacks of fear, not hope. He stands against hate, but not, specifically, white people’s hatred of black people. Everyone has their blind spot, Atticus likes to say. Yet he proclaims to Jem that it’s “sickening” to take advantage of a black man. He places black people in the role of wayward children—ignorant, foolish, gullible. This is not an empowering message.
I don’t want to ban To Kill a Mockingbird. While there are novels I’d certainly rather teach, in her portrayal of Atticus and his community of hypocrites and bystanders, Lee wrote a book far more relevant than she’s often given credit for by teachers. Bombarded with daily evidence that the United States remains hobbled by institutional racism, a contemporary reader may come to a pessimistic conclusion: The noblest adult with any power in the novel offers up no assault on bigotry itself, just the notion a spectacularly innocent client doesn’t even deserve counsel. Chipping away at Atticus elevates the book to bitter tragedy, both about the legacy of racism in this country and our inability to identify and combat it effectively.
Every year, I am more enthusiastic about sharing Beloved with my seniors. Its “malevolent phantom,” far grimmer than Boo Radley, comes to torment a formerly enslaved mother who made the profoundly human decision to try to kill her children instead of allowing them to be enslaved. The horrors of Sethe’s past have scattered mines throughout her present, walled off her future, and fragmented her autobiography. The book ends on an ambiguously ominous note. Yet in giving us Denver, her (possibly) Oberlin-bound adult daughter who finally steps off the porch of the old haunted house at 124 Bluestone Road, Toni Morrison offers some hope. Even with Denver’s bedridden mother adding a question mark after the pronoun “me,” as if she’s not quite sure of the self Paul D assures her she freely possesses. Once incapacitated by fear of an enslavement she never experienced firsthand, Denver brims with potential, a reminder to students that tattered stories can be stitched. In contrast, To Kill a Mockingbird leaves wounds gaping and, more offensively, ignored. Tom Robinson’s hopeless trial and eventual off-screen death is, as Roxane Gay suggests in this recent NYT piece, a formative event in the childhood of a precocious white girl. His imprisonment and casual annihilation is swallowed up by Ewell’s attack on Scout and Jem. Tom’s wife and three children live on, and I always wonder what it’d be like to read their pain, to trace the vacuum in their lives. I ask students to envision it. Beloved allows students to imagine how the surviving Robinsons live with that vacuum and the accompanying bitterness, for generations to come. As Sethe says, some things go, pass on, others just stay.
Predictably, white students often clam up during the Beloved unit. “I can’t relate to it,” shrugged Nick, a good student, when I asked why his quiz grades on Beloved had slumped. He’d probably never wondered why his Guatemalan and Mexican classmates might have struggled to connect to 1984 or The Stranger. He could not find himself in Beloved unless he wanted to slip into the white skin of a slave owner, aging abolitionist cynic, or abused teenage girl. He was used to finding himself, if not in the behavior of Meursault or Winston Smith, at least in their bodies. Tracy, a transgender student who once pointed out the unfairness of teachers addressing class as “boys and girls,” insisted that slavery was over and that dwelling on its horrors didn’t help anyone. An English major friend from college has never read Toni Morrison, and when I once asked why, he responded almost exactly like Nick. Melanie, conscientious and quirky, seethed when I pointed out that the Bodwins’ boarding arrangement with Baby Suggs borders on slavery, and that Mr. Bodwin himself characterizes his radical political phase as a romantic episode that, by the end of the war, and with his advancing age, has lost its luster. Bodwin fights against slavery without understanding its evil. Atticus fights for the law without understanding the people expected to obey, serve, and be abused by it.
Race is such a severe line of demarcation for the quality and character of the American experience, white students find contemplating it daunting and disquieting and try to avoid it as much as most white adults. In an interview published shortly after the book’s publication, Morrison called slavery our “national amnesia” and suggested that she struggled to write Beloved because she felt like she was “drowning” in a history she’d gone out of her way to duck.
“We haven’t forgotten; we never knew,” says lawyer John Cummings in a short New Yorker documentary about the Whitney Plantation, the unique Louisiana slavery museum he founded in 2014. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told, Cornell professor Edward Baptist compares slavery to the first crucial years in America’s retirement portfolio; it juiced our economic strength and permitted political and military power to expand in the 20th century. Sharing such ideas over the course of the Beloved unit is my way of asking students to entertain the tattered narrative from which they initially recoil. What’s much harder is having them feel invested in its repair.
I’ve sometimes debated amicably with colleagues, the same who join me in tweaking Atticus, about the extent to which class material should be tailored to the interests and lives of students. To foster buy-in, teachers need to make material relevant. Sometimes that means students essentially only end up thinking and writing about themselves. Facing To Kill a Mockingbird, Latinx students often turn the discussion toward immigration. White girls tend to focus on gender, LGBTQ students on sexual orientation, and so on. As a conclusion to my To Kill a Mockingbird unit, I have students write appointed and elected officials proposing potential solutions to symptoms of America’s continuing struggle with racism. To date they have received responses of varying depth from Department of Education representatives and Sen. Kamala Harris’s office. When I assigned the project, students had no qualms asking if they could avoid writing about race and instead focus on marriage equality or the environment. One girl picked an alternative topic and submitted a letter without asking permission. The point of my assignment is not to strip students of agency. I want them to get out of their comfort zones and practice empathy. To imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus says.
My colleagues agree with me: a teacher can provide bridges between the unfamiliar and the known, but to be serious students (as well as decent human beings), kids have to learn to be curious and uncomfortable. They can’t loll in the padded cells of their own personal experiences and social media feeds.
I came to my current school from a school in Los Angeles that served only low-income students of color. When I made the move, I told a grad school friend that I felt a little guilty, like helping relatively more affluent students embrace their power and potential might make my work feel less meaningful. He saw no discrepancy. “Your white students need to understand power maybe more than anyone,” he said.
For six decades, To Kill a Mockingbird has been taught with the comfort (and power) of white students (and their mostly white teachers) in mind. Ensuring this comfort has led millions to an absurd reading of a seminal work of literature. It’s this misreading, and misteaching, ironically, that truly makes it our national novel. A To Kill a Mockingbird unit needs to be about the way this book was taught to students’ parents, and those parents’ parents, and why that problematic understanding of the book hasn’t benefited any generation. The repetition of the teaching mirrors the repetition of errors, from Selma to Charlottesville, the narrative tapestry shredding again and again. It’s good if, through English class, all students—Darrens as well as those they might target—come away with a rich understanding of how racism is foundational to America and how it affects the lives of black and brown people. It’s better if they recognize that all marginalized groups in the United States and abroad can find common ground. It’s a profound thing if they come away more empathetic, less likely to contribute, as a hound of Twitter or meme-sharing troll, to a culture of ignorance, callousness, and knee-jerk antagonism. It’s worth noting that Atticus, who preaches such magnanimity, never once suggests his kids slip into the skin of someone who isn’t white. Students in 2019 can learn from his weakness even more than his wisdom.
“I was guilty as soon as I was accused,” says Tom Robinson to Atticus Finch.
“I get called an optimist a lot. What I don’t get called is stupid,” Atticus responds, trying to convince Tom to sign the “not guilty” plea that sits before him on a wooden table. He assures Tom that the trial “will happen in an American court of law.” Tom “should have faith in that institution.”
It’s early in the first act of Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Gbenga Akinnagbe as Tom is squaring off against Jeff Daniels as Atticus. Akinnagbe, masterfully bottling up Tom’s bottomless anger and sadness, offers a sort of half-laugh at the privilege inherent in blindly trusting an American court in 1934 (or any other year).
A long pause ensues before Tom responds, “You gonna answer that question?” The audience laughs knowingly.
By the end of the conversation, of course, Tom Robinson agrees to plead “not guilty” to the rape he did not commit. “And just like that,” says Scout, in her role as narrator, “everyone’s fate was sealed.”
This interaction, which does not exist in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, nor the 1962 film version, is the first of several invented scenes intended to flesh out the perspectives of the story’s previously one-dimensional African-American characters. In each of them, Atticus Finch is not the wisest person on the stage.
To Kill a Mockingbird opened on December 13 at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre under the direction of Bartlett Sher. The play has had an unusually public path to Broadway, garnering national headlines in a dispute between mega-producer Scott Rudin and Tonja Carter, the lawyer who now controls Harper Lee’s estate. As Sorkin recently revealed in an essay for Vulture, one of the concessions of the settlement between the parties was that his version of Atticus could not use the Lord’s name in vain.
In that essay, Sorkin revealed his desire to put Atticus at the heart of his adaptation (in the book, Atticus’s daughter Scout is the protagonist). Of course, any tragic hero needs a hamartia, but Sorkin realized he “didn’t have to give Atticus a flaw because,” well, “he already had one.” Atticus “believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?”
Enter Jeff Daniels, who tackles the inevitable comparisons to Gregory Peck by playing a different character entirely. Peck’s Atticus is statuesque, his anger measured, his words slow and mellifluous, his voice a carefully-plucked bass. Daniels’s Atticus is slightly stoop-shouldered, increasingly short-tempered, and more urgent. He delivers his lines in a cascading baritone, slurring together syllables in a sing-song Southern lilt. It’s an indelible portrait, so much so that to go back and watch Peck after watching Daniels is jarring.
Daniels is joined by a trio of adult actors—Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, and Gideon Glick—as Scout, Jem, and Dill. This casting maneuver elides one of Mockingbird’s perceived narrative flaws: the inconsistency of Scout’s voice. It is so well-executed that not a single moment goes by in which it feels like the wrong move. Each time Keenan-Bolger joyfully stomps around with her brand-new baton, or angrily stomps back and forth in front of the house, slamming her hand against the porch over and over, she wins our love all over again. Pullen deftly channels the uncertain gulf between boyhood and manhood. Glick brings to mind Nathan Lane with his absurdly high laugh rate. (I lost track, but it seemed well over 50 percent, and every word he spoke felt fresh.)
LaTanya Richardson Jackson draws mid-scene applause as Calpurnia with her withering critiques of Atticus’s liberalism. (I would happily watch a sequel all about her.) It is through Calpurnia’s eyes, and Tom’s, that the overwhelmingly white audience sees Atticus’s perfect whiteness: He has the luxury of wrongly believing in people, whereas she and Tom are required by circumstance to rightly understand systems.
The empty stage is constantly being reinvented via Miriam Buether’s set design. It’s a courthouse, it’s a front porch, it’s the yard of Boo Radley. This is all done with workmanlike precision and grace, as a combination of automated and actor-controlled set pieces rise and fall and roll and lock into place.
Each time Akinnagbe’s Tom Robinson enters or exits, he, too, is pushed or pulled by a cast member. Akinnagbe’s physical resistance increases as the play progresses, but even in his quietest moments, he loathes the controlling hands. Tom’s body, it is clear, does not belong to him.
When the inevitable verdict is reached—and you may want to skip this paragraph and the next one if you have not read the book, or if you don’t remember—we hear it repeated 12 times, one “guilty” for each juror. It brings to mind the verdict in the Laquan McDonald case, in which each count was read aloud, one “guilty” for each of the sixteen shots from the gun of Officer Jason Van Dyke.
That verdict took a full two minutes to read. And while it was a more hopeful verdict than the one that meets Tom Robinson, the gap between the two Black men, one real and one fictional, is a small one. Late in the play, Calpurnia insists that Atticus share how many times Tom is ultimately shot during his attempted prison escape. (Puzzlingly, the answer is five, while in the book, it is seventeen.)
This is a production that is well aware of how far our society has not come since 1934, or since 1960. In the theatre’s basement, Mockingbird merchandise is on sale alongside a T-Shirt that reads “Patriarchy is a Bitch,” a woman’s tank top with the words “consent is sexy,” and a gray hoodie emblazoned with the name “TRAYVON.” The offerings are the result of a partnership with Liberated People, a brand founded by Akinnagbe. According to a sign on the gift kiosk counter, some portion of the proceeds benefit the Monroe County Public Library, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Trayvon Martin Foundation.
The Atticus Finch onstage at the Shubert Theatre is many people. He is the two-time Obama voter who eventually goes for Trump, as we know he did in Go Set a Watchman. He is the white Obama-Clinton voter who never saw a Trump victory coming, right up until all those swing states went red, one by one. And he is Obama himself, who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, is “unfailingly optimistic about the empathy and capabilities of the American people.”
Obama looms large over this play, not least because he lovingly quoted Atticus in his January 2017 farewell address to the nation. In a segment focusing on race relations, Obama enumerated policy recommendations, but also noted that “Laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. They won’t change overnight. Social attitudes often times take generations to change.” (In the play, Calpurnia mocks Atticus’s patience with the glacial pace of change in Maycomb, asking, “How much time would Maycomb like?”)
“But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation,” Obama went on, “then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
This advice comes early on in the play, after an ugly front-porch confrontation between Atticus and Bob Ewell. Scout and Jem are itching for a fight, and Atticus sits them down and reviews the plan for what to do when people say “unpleasant” things to them. “Go for the eyes,” Scout responds, without missing a beat.
Not quite. “There’s goodness in everyone,” Atticus says. “Before you judge someone, it’s a good idea to get inside their skin for a while and crawl around.”
It’s a notable rewrite on Sorkin’s part, substituting the nobler-sounding “climb” and “walk” for the more modest “get” and “crawl.” And it is this advice, as much as Tom Robinson himself, that is on trial throughout the play. It is brought up three more times in the first act, once by Scout and twice by Calpurnia, and all three times the women are spitting Atticus’s advice back at him defiantly.
Whether to “go for the eyes” or don your opponent’s skin is a tension deeply felt in Obama’s inner circle today. This October, former Attorney General Eric Holder, who once called To Kill a Mockingbird “America’s story” and credited Atticus with launching countless law careers, was on a campaign stop for Stacey Abrams in Georgia. He referenced the former first lady’s Atticus-like words at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “Michelle always says, ‘When they go low, we go high.’
“No, no,” he corrected. “When they go low, we kick ‘em.” Amid the laughter and applause, some members of the crowd chanted, “fight, fight, fight!”
Atticus, who is on the Obamas’ side, ends the play diminished. Deaths and injuries have piled up around him. Each one is in some way the result of his optimism, and each one flies in the face of his faith in his friends and neighbors. Calpurnia and Tom, meanwhile, are on Holder’s. And not a single moment goes by when their clear-eyed vision of the world is proven wrong.
This year we lost a Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer Prize winners, many writers with wide readerships, and many more who never achieved the acclaim or the audiences they deserved. Happily for them all, their books live on.
C.D. Wright’s poetry was grounded in her native Arkansas — she called her early style “idiom Ozarkia” — but her work broke so many boundaries and wandered so freely that she belonged, in the words of the poet Joel Brouwer, “to a school of exactly one.” Wright, who died on Jan. 12 at 67, wrote that her poems were about “desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all. About persons of small means.” Some of those persons were inmates she interviewed in Louisiana prisons, who inspired these lines:
AC or DC
You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned
Your pick you’re the one condemned
Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay.
In an autobiographical prose poem from 2005, Wright, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote this of herself: “I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it…Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world.”
Umberto Eco, who died on Feb. 15 at 84, was a semiotician by training, a scholar who studied signs and symbols — religious icons, clothing, words, musical scores. When he turned his hand to writing novels, Eco achieved superstar success on a global scale, never more so than with the first of his seven novels, The Name of the Rose, a yarn about murderous monks in a medieval monastery. Though it was larded with descriptions of heresies and Christian theology, it succeeded as a page-turner, a shameless whodunit that sold 10 million copies and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco’s runaway popularity won the scorn of some critics and more than a few disgruntled academics, but he was unapologetic about wearing two hats. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said. In a postscript to The Name of the Rose, he added, “I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it. I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story. Man is a storytelling animal by nature. I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.”
Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19 at 89, spent most of her long life claiming she was perfectly content being a one-hit wonder. No wonder. To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has been branded “America’s most beloved novel,” with more than 40 million copies in print and a permanent place on every high school reading list in the land. The love was enormous but not universal. Flannery O’Connor dismissed the novel as “a child’s book,” which strikes me as neither unkind nor unfair.
In 2015, Lee’s lawyer talked her into publishing a “lost” novel, Go Set a Watchman. Reviews were mixed, to put it kindly, and many fans were dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch did not always walk on water, that he was capable, in fact, of being a card-carrying south Alabama peckerwood racist. Of course Watchman became an instantaneous #1 bestseller, but that doesn’t dispel the fact that some books should have the decency to stay lost and die a quiet death.
When I heard that Jim Harrison had died on March 26 at 78, I immediately reread Revenge, my personal favorite of his many magnificent novellas, a form at which he had few peers. This one has it all: vivid descriptions of the twinned geographies of the natural world and the human heart, a torrid affair between a former fighter pilot and a dangerous friend’s wife, which leads to rococo violence, which leads to more violence during a long campaign for revenge. The novella runs just 96 pages, yet it contains worlds. Jim Harrison’s world was a moral place, as finely calibrated as a clock. Violence begets violence; violation demands vengeance; every act has its price, and that price must be paid.
Harrison was also a prolific novelist, essayist and poet, author of a memoir, a children’s book, and some very funny writing about food. A shaggy Falstaffian from the wilds of northern Michigan, Harrison was a man with boundless appetites for food and wine, hunting and fishing, literature and life, a man who adored antelope liver and detested skinless chicken breasts, a man who once flew to France to take part in a 37-course lunch that featured 19 wines. French readers revere him, though his American readership is smaller than it should be. No matter. Jim Harrison lived and wrote his own way, the only way — all the way to the brim.
Read: A personal account of a decades-long friendship with Harrison.
Many books have captured the physical horrors of our Vietnam misadventure, but only one captured its psychedelic, rock ‘n’ roll absurdity. That book was Dispatches, a bombshell piece of reporting by Michael Herr that appeared in 1977, nearly a decade after his tour of duty as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, covering an unwinnable orgy of carnage the only purpose of which, as he put it, was “maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah.” Herr, who died on June 23 at 76, made no secret of his respect for what the grunts went through, or his disdain for the officers and politicians who put them through it. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read about men and war in our time.” A decade after it appeared, Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He also wrote a book about his friendship with Kubrick, and a fictionalized biography of Walter Winchell. But in the last years of his life, Herr took up Buddhism and gave up writing.
Read: Our look at war books and the work Herr inspired.
James Alan McPherson
James Alan McPherson was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1977 story collection Elbow Room. After attending segregated schools in his native Georgia and graduating from Harvard Law School, McPherson took a sharp detour into the writing life, earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wound up teaching from 1981 until his retirement in 2014.
Though his short stories, essays, and memoirs didn’t flinch from the evils of Jim Crow, McPherson strove to embrace the one thing he felt could possibly bestow greatness on America: its cultural diversity. An acolyte and occasional collaborator with Ralph Ellison, McPherson wrote in a 1978 essay in The Atlantic: “I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned to right to call oneself a citizen of the United States.” Speaking of the characters in his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, McPherson said, “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.”
Read: A note on McPherson’s skill as a eulogist.
George and Martha — sad, sad, sad. It’s unlikely anyone will ever write a more acidic portrait of an American marriage than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. After his 1959 debut, The Zoo Story, which opened in Berlin on a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Albee went on to write some 30 plays that shone light into the darkest precincts of well-to-do lives, where the regrets and the lies and the self-deception dwell. Though Albee, who died on Sept. 16 at 88, won two Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, he was not always embraced by critics or audiences. One reviewer dismissed Virginia Woolf as “a sick play for sick people.” Its film adaptation, starring Richard Burton as George, a bitter alcoholic academic, and Liz Taylor as Martha, his bitter alcoholic wife, captured the essence of Albee’s output. He described his work this way to a New York Times interviewer in 1991: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”
Read: A personal account of someone who got his mail from Albee (really).
With her 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor hit the trifecta: a National Book Award, a TV adaptation by Oprah Winfrey, and a wide and devoted readership. Naylor, who died on Sept. 28 at 66, spun her best-known novel around seven African-American women, straight and gay, who live in a shabby housing project plagued by sexual predators and poverty. Naylor said she regarded those seven women “like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.” The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award for a first novel in 1983. A New York native and one-time Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary, Naylor said she left the church out of frustration over its limited role for women, a break that sent her into a deep depression. Like the “ebony phoenix,” she rose and was saved by her writing.
William Trevor wrote extraordinary fiction about the most ordinary of people — mechanics, priests, and farmers who lived in small English and Irish towns. Trevor, a native of Ireland who died on Nov. 20 at 88, wrote nearly 20 novels, many of them prize-winners, but he considered his true form the short story. Few would argue. “I’m a short story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he said, adding, “I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people.” Like the evening a lovelorn Irish mechanic named Cahal, in the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is driving a pair of Spanish lovers back from a visit to a bogus religious pilgrimage site — and the girl of the story’s title hurls herself at the passing car. Cahal is tortured by uncertainty over what happened to the girl and what will happen to him — until the dressmaker offers him a twisted form of absolution. Things just happen to people, and suddenly their ordinary predicaments are transformed into something startling and new.
Read: Lionel Shriver on reading Trevor.
And let’s not forget these notables, in alphabetical order:
Anita Brookner, 87, was an accomplished art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s, many of them about women mired in gloom. Her fourth novel, 1984’s Hotel du Lac, won the Booker Prize.
Read: A detailed exploration of of Brookner’s considerable charms.
David Budbill, 76, worked out of a remote cabin in rural Vermont for more than 40 years, writing stripped-down poems about the Vermont mountains and the “invisible” people who live there, in all their beauty and ugliness. A workmanlike writer who detested artsy pretension, Budbill was once asked about the source of his inspiration. “I don’t know where it comes from,” he replied, “and I don’t care.”
Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, 74, was the author of an autobiography, but he’ll be remembered as the brash mayor who breathed new life into his tired old hometown of Providence, Rhode Island — only to be undone by some nasty habits. He assaulted a romantic rival with a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette, which cost him his job as mayor. After serving a suspended sentence and winning re-election, Cianci was convicted of racketeering for accepting envelopes of cash in return for city jobs. After serving a federal prison sentence, he made a third run for the mayor’s office in 2015, but lost. His autobiography was called Politics and Pasta.
Read: A personal account of meeting Cianci.
Pat Conroy, 70, may have written his share of prose dripping with Spanish moss and Low Country hokum, but he attracted an army of devoted readers. he son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot, Conroy turned the horrors of his childhood into the novel The Great Santini, then followed it with The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, all made into hit Hollywood movies, all gobbled up by his fans. Asked to describe his son’s readers, the ever-charming Donald Conroy said, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.” He forgot to add: and lots of them.
Read: Conroy’s reaction to having his books banned.
Warren Hinckle, 77, was the swashbuckling, hard-drinking editor of Ramparts and other magazines who railed against the Vietnam War, published Che Guevara’s diaries and Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison, and helped birth gonzo journalism by publishing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” along with Ralph Steadman’s volcanic drawings. American journalism was changed forever.
Thom Jones, 71, was a recovering alcoholic working as a high school janitor when he mailed a short story called “The Pugilist at Rest” to The New Yorker. The magazine published the story in 1991, and it won the O. Henry Prize for best short story. It was a stunning beginning to a career of writing semi-autobiographical stories about soldiers, boxers, janitors, crime victims — “people,” as Jones put it, “you don’t want living next door to you.”
Read: A Year in Reading on Jones.
Imre Kertész, 86, survived internment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then spent years writing semi-autobiographical novels about the Holocaust and its aftermath. The books, remarkable for their lack of sensationalism, languished in obscurity until 2002, when Kertesz became the only Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Read: A Year in Reading on Kertész.
Florence King, 80, was one of the last of a breed that is all but extinct: the misanthropic curmudgeon. In columns for the conservative National Review and several books, most notably Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King skewered liberalism, feminism, and anything that smelled remotely of political correctness. Nobody could possibly agree with all of her opinions, but just about everybody admired her ability to lacerate and enrage, which, after all, is what misanthropic curmudgeons are supposed to do. She once wrote: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.” Wow.
Read: A detailed look at King’s work and life.
W.P. Kinsella, 81, wrote 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, much of it infused with his intertwined love for magic realism and the game of baseball. His best known book is the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer who carves a baseball diamond into his cornfield to attract Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” back from the grave. One viewer dismissed the movie as “Field of Corn,” but it produced a line that lives on: “If you build it, he will come.”
Read: A piece on the great writers of baseball.
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
When Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was published last summer, fans were disturbed at its depiction of Atticus Finch, which seemed to warp an iconic hero of American fiction beyond recognition. Go Set a Watchman shows Atticus as a hidebound defender of Southern tradition who mingles with white supremacists — a far cry, many felt, from the lawyer and family man who took a courageous stand against racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.
We might have been less surprised by the unsavory aspects of Atticus’s character, however, if we paid closer attention to the birds in Lee’s work. Animals are central to the novel’s message; this is, after all, the story of a family of Finches whose protracted battle against Jim Crow is captured in a metaphor about mockingbirds. A better understanding of the cultural significance of the birds in the book suggests what so many readers otherwise miss: that Atticus’s noble actions are inseparable from his investment in the romantic glory of the American South.
The phrase “to kill a mockingbird” comes from a bit of fatherly advice that Atticus delivers to his children, Scout and Jem. When they receive a pair of air rifles as a gift, Atticus lays down some strange rules about how to use their weapons responsibly: “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Why it is acceptable to shoot blue jays, but not mockingbirds? Miss Maudie, a neighbor, tries to clarify:
‘Your father’s right,’ [Miss Maudie] said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’
Miss Maudie’s explanation helps direct Scout’s developing moral understanding. For Scout and for the novel’s many young adult readers, killing mockingbirds becomes shorthand for any gratuitous violence directed at innocent, unassuming individuals like Tom Robinson.
Yet there is something off about Miss Maudie’s explanation. As any amateur birder could tell you, mockingbirds are neither innocent nor unassuming. Although it’s true that they don’t destroy seed crops the way a jay might, mockingbirds are hardly models of civility themselves. Like jays, they have a variety of abrasive, grating calls. Their songs can be melodious, but they can also be infuriating; they consist of snippets of other sounds repeated multiple times at high volume. These snippets may include borrowed birdsongs, door hinges, car alarms, or any other ambient noise. They perform these soliloquies all day and often deep into the night.
Another trait mockingbirds share with jays is aggression. What sets the mockingbird’s aggression apart from the jay’s, however, is a tendency to extend its ferocity to almost any species. Mockingbirds happily attack all “intruders” unlucky enough to stumble into their supposed territory. As Mark Cocker notes in his encyclopedic Birds & People:
They are well known for fiercely defending their nests and young from all comers including humans, but also from birds of prey, cats, raccoons and snakes. Sometimes the species extends these violent assaults to almost any small bird straying into its territory…Mockingbirds are sometimes so aggressive they can even kill snakes by pecking out their eyes.
In short, the mockingbird is a remarkable animal, but not exactly an ideal neighbor. Nevertheless, Atticus’s preference for it is so pronounced that it leads him afoul of the law.
Atticus’s advice to his children actually condones what an accomplished lawyer should have recognized as a federal offense. Since the passage of The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it has been illegal “to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill…any migratory bird” in the United States. Under this statue, both the Blue Jay and the Northern Mockingbird qualify as migratory birds; shooting either one is punishable by fines of up to $500 or up to six months imprisonment. Yet Atticus takes the trouble to draw nice distinctions between species to clarify what sorts of crimes his children can commit with a clear conscience. If the law does not discriminate between blue jays and mockingbirds, why does Atticus Finch?
The answer lies in the Northern Mockingbird’s unusual place in American cultural history. The mockingbird has an elaborate literary pedigree, one that stretches across the Atlantic through the bird’s longstanding association with the European nightingale. That relationship helped enshrine the mockingbird as a symbol of the faded magnificence of the American South — a meaning it retains to this day.
The mockingbird’s rise to prominence began with the Romantic movement. In the late-1700s, a number of writers, artists, and intellectuals sought to escape the corruption of European society through a return to nature. In the process, they founded what is now known as the Romantic movement. As they praised nature in poetry, painting, and music, the Romantics sometimes singled out particular species for special symbolic significance. One species beloved by the Romantics was the Common Nightingale.
To the Romantic poet John Keats, the Common Nightingale was anything but common. As Leonard Lutwack points out in his study of Birds in Literature, admiration for the nightingale’s song dates back to Ancient Greece. The bird’s beautiful music — and its classical associations — awed Keats. His 1820 “Ode to a Nightingale” depicts the bird as enviably happy, the symbol of a golden age in Western Civilization lost to modern man. The nightingale’s music contrasts sharply against the song of the melancholy modern poet; as night falls and the poet’s vision fails, the bird warbles “of summer in full-throated ease,” spurring its lonely listener to meditate on the grandeur of “ancient days” and pine for “the warm South” of the Mediterranean.
Although they were separated from the main currents of Romanticism by the Atlantic, American writers welcomed the new cult of nature worship. After all, the Romantic fondness for wild places promised to redeem America’s sprawling tracts of uninhabited land, recasting the new country’s wastes and deserts as sources of cultural pride. There was only one problem: the iconic species featured in so many Romantic poems — nightingales, song thrushes, skylarks — were Old World species, confined to Eurasia and Africa. In order to adapt Romantic nature worship to their national landscape, American writers needed to find native species that could stand in for their more storied European cousins. They needed creatures that would tap into the glories of Old World traditions, but that remained distinct enough to symbolize the natural purity and power unique to the American continent.
Luckily, European explorers and naturalists had already begun that work for them. A glance through the ornithological writings collected in Donald Culross Peattie’s A Gathering of Birds, for example, shows foreign-born writers freely equating the species they encountered in the New World with better-known ones back home. So, the 19th-century Englishman Thomas Nuttall begins his writings on the Northern Mockingbird by immediately equating it to a European counterpart. He repeatedly characterizes its appearance (drab plumage) and behavior (nighttime singing) as “like the Nightingale.” Both the jarring mockeries of the mockingbird’s song and its unpredictable aggressions are softened by this comparison to a more timid, musical corollary from the Continent.
When they sought to construct their own natural iconography, then, American writers like Walt Whitman had such associations ready-to-hand. Oceans may have divided Whitman’s Long Island from Keats’s Hampstead and Homer’s Greece, but Whitman could still frame his poetic engagement with nature in familiar terms, because he, too, found inspiration in solitary encounters with birdsong at night. Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” depicts the poet as a boy, wandering the shore and listening to a bird sing mournfully in the darkness. The experience moves Whitman as it moved Keats and the Greeks before him. In Whitman’s case, though, the conventional nightingale is replaced by the American mockingbird, which sets the young boy on his path to develop a uniquely American literary voice.
The final fruit of that effort was Whitman’s oft-revised masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. Composing this collection of national poetry entailed treating the United States as, well, united. But “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” first appeared in 1859, when tensions over slavery were tearing the young nation apart. Whitman was a Northerner who would go on to champion Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. He stressed American unity in his poem, however, by building it around admiration for the mockingbird, a species powerfully associated with the slaveholding states; like its counterpart the nightingale, the mockingbird was an emissary of “the warm South.” In fact, from an ornithological perspective, one of the most striking features of Whitman’s poem is his claim to have seen mockingbirds breeding as far north as Long Island; Whitman acknowledges them as an oddity by hailing the mated pair as “Two feather’d guests from Alabama.”
The mockingbird’s range has expanded northward in the intervening years, obscuring the bird’s deep regional associations. But a glance at the list of U.S. state birds shows how strongly those associations persist. Indeed, the Northern Mockingbird’s name is something of a misnomer; all of the states that have declared it their official bird (Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Arkansas, and — formerly — South Carolina) lie well below the Mason-Dixon Line. The seemingly pointless practice of selecting state animals turns out, then, to provide a useful index of this bird’s ongoing importance to a certain kind of regional pride — an affection that persists long after most Southerners could rationally explain it.
Despite Miss Maudie’s claims, then, the mockingbird is no innocent entertainer. It has long served as a rallying point for a very specific vision of American communal identity — one intertwined with the romantic glories of the Old South. Its associations with the nightingale allow the mockingbird to suggest a vision of the South as a lost idyll, the mythic location of a golden age we can no longer inhabit. At the same time, the contrast between the mockingbird’s symbolic traits and its real-world behavior remind us of just how misleading that vision can be.
Like the Old South itself, Atticus’s beloved mockingbird has been sanitized of all its obnoxious traits and associations. The song of his mockingbird is pure, joyous entertainment; in reality, the mockingbird’s song weaves borrowed sounds together into a patchwork melody both beautiful and jarring, an assertive boast the disturbing elements of which keep conscientious listeners awake at night. Atticus’s mockingbird behaves with pure courtesy; in reality, the mockingbird combines charming bluster with surprising violence in defense of its self-proclaimed territory. Neither Atticus nor Miss Maudie bothers to mention the bird’s unimpressive plumage. If they did, though, they might praise it as a staid Confederate gray — a sharp contrast to the jay’s flashier Union blues.
The mentality of the Old South infiltrates even the apparently positive application of the mockingbird metaphor to Tom Robinson. Although Scout understands the metaphor as an injunction to protect all forms of innocence and goodness, its actual implication is far more specific: Miss Maudie explains that protecting mockingbirds is an exercise in benevolence towards harmless, joyful, music-loving souls.
Tom Robinson is innocent, but this image of him isn’t. It reproduces stereotypes of blackness popularized by the minstrel shows of the antebellum South. The black characters in minstrel performances — really white actors in blackface makeup — were clownish and lazy, but otherwise harmless and musical. The devastating cultural legacy of these characters is visible in the term “Jim Crow” itself. The phrase that now designates the pervasive racism of the post-Reconstruction South originated with Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s “Jump Jim Crow,” a song-and-dance routine that popularized Jim Crow as a stereotypical minstrel figure.
As Miss Maudie explains it, then, the mockingbird metaphor deals in the same oppressive stereotypes that Atticus appears to fight. Readers are free, of course, to reject Miss Maudie’s interpretation in favor of Scout’s more expansive moral understanding. But the heavily symbolic mockingbird retains its deeply entrenched and unsettling associations with the slaveholding South.
Idolizing Atticus as a paragon of moral decency requires passing over these things in silence — as Atticus himself does when he expresses a preference that is, finally, unjustifiable. Reading into his silence reveals the hidden complexity of Atticus’s character, suggesting the tensions between real progress and Romantic regionalism at work in his psyche. For many readers, that tension was imperceptible until the publication of Go Set a Watchman. But if we listened a little closer, we might have heard what a little bird was telling us all along.