The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom keeps track of complaints against Harper Lee’s most famous novel and the list of challenges to teaching the novel has been steadily growing since at least 1977. Indeed, To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most banned books in America, mostly because of its alleged racism.
Let this stark irony not be lost on us. To ban Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) could not possibly be a more misjudged estimation of its worthiness as a novel about the odious nature of racism. To kill this good book by removing it from library shelves—as seems to be happening this week in my native Virginia—is to kill reason itself.
One recalls John Milton’s stirring words from his Areopagitica (1644): “[A]s good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.”
That reason is not only a Platonic Form and an Enlightenment Ideal. It is carefully woven into Lee’s novel in the beautiful passages where the main characters are being kind, open-minded and reasonable with one another. In that reasonableness we find a counterpoint to the very ignorance, shallowness and unreasonableness of those who are moved to kill To Kill A Mockingbird.
In the misplaced zeal to do away with the alleged racial bigotry of the novel, censors tend to focus on individual words—especially the dreaded ‘n—–‘ word—and think their work of censorship is done. This microscopic, literalist view of language is a kind of parody of the spirit-letter distinction, focusing, as it does, on single elements in a narrative rather than on the general and generous spirit of an entire passage of the novel itself.
Anyone who has actually read all of To Kill A Mockingbird knows that the novel is a thoroughgoing critique of racism, not an advertisement for it. We are meant to feel the most profound sympathy for Tom Robinson, especially in the famous courtroom scene where Atticus Finch so compellingly defends him against the false accusation of the rape of a white woman (those who point out that the novel gives us a white man trying to save a black man’s life must understand that black lawyers were extremely scarce in the South at the time the novel was set).
It staggers the imagination how the novelist’s representation of fairness and its moral condemnation of racism can be easily twisted into its opposite. One simply cannot imagine a more desperately ignorant reading of the novel.
To offer just one example of many passages in the novel where Lee is at pains to show us the ugliness of racism, here is a key moment in the courtroom when the vile Mr Ewell identifies Tom Robinson as the one who had assaulted his daughter.
Mr Ewell looks confusedly at the judge. ‘Well, Mayella was raisin’ this holy racket so I dropped m’load and run as fast as I could but I run into th’fence, but when I got distangled I run up to th’ window and I seen—‘ Mr Ewell’s face grew scarlet. He stood and pointed his finger at Tom Robinson. ‘—I seen that black n****r yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!’
The first thing to say to alarmed students is: consider the source. Mr Ewell is the novel’s most despicable character and it is precisely his racism that is on trial throughout the novel. Ewell’s testimony is a lie and his ignorance of basic grammar and pronunciation only underscores his uneducated character.
The courtroom goes berserk at Mr Ewell’s last words and the judge is forced to consider having the women and children removed. Rather than infantalize them, Judge Taylor says that the ‘request…will be denied for the time being. People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for, and they have a right to subject their children to it…’ One recalls Oscar Wilde’s wistful words in the ‘Preface’ to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”
The censors of To Kill A Mockingbird are seeing only what they are looking for. Their eyes skim passages, tear one word from its context and they see racism. That moral squinting is a form of blindness. It is the triumph of the literal over the literary.
Noting Ewell’s blank look as the judge gives his short, eloquent speech about not sending the women and children from the courtroom, Scout says, “Mr Ewell reminded me of a deaf-mute.” Intelligent and sensitive readers of Lee’s masterpiece are now looking in alarm at citizens in Virginia who are selectively not listening to the novel in all its richness and complexity and—crucially—its stance against racism.
As counterpart to the scenes of violence, name-calling and hateful behaviour, Lee includes many moments where reasonableness and politeness are enshrined as the highest ideals. We recall the episode in chapter three where Scout is complaining about the uselessness of going to school, and how the teacher is not sanguine about Scout’s learning to read at home. Atticus speaks to her like an adult and reasons with her.
“Do you know what a compromise is?” he asked.
“Bending the law?”
“No, an agreement reached by mutual concessions. It works this way,” he said. “If you’ll concede the necessity of going to school, we’ll go on reading every night just as we always have. Is it a bargain?”
A little later in the novel, Atticus discovers that Jem has made a snowman that seems suspiciously like an exaggeration of their neighbour, Mr Avery. Pondering Jem’s artistic talents, Atticus says, “You’ve perpetrated a near libel here in the front yard. We’ve got to disguise this fellow. Atticus suggested that Jem hone down his creation’s front a little, swap a broom for the stovewood, and put an apron on him.” He tells Jem that he “can’t go around making caricatures of the neighbors.”
Even the funniest and slightest episodes in the novel seem to present that idea that moral sympathy, good manners and politeness are one and the same virtue.
The most outrageous thing about banning or censoring To Kill A Mockingbird is that doing so ignores the basic spirit of the book, engrailed in its very title.
Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.
Like mockingbirds that do no harm but rather—as Miss Maudie says to Scout—‘but sing their hearts out for us’—so too the novel gives us the generosity of art in all its moral and psychological nuances. The novel is also Boo Radley making special gifts to put into the hollow of a tree. Scout realises that making a fuss about Boo’s greatest ‘gift’ of saving their lives would ‘be sort of like shooting a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?’ She is recalling Miss Maudie’s reply about why Atticus said killing a mockingbird was a “sin.” Atticus, Calpurnia and Miss Maudie have united to create a wise child and now the father listens to his own lessons echoing in Scout’s just heart.
That lesson in justice, moral expansiveness and the art of sympathy occurs most memorably when Atticus is trying to explain to Scout why she must try to get along with her fractious peers in the schoolyard. Atticus tells her that “[y]ou 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.”
That goes for novels as well as people. Those who would kill To Kill A Mockingbird clearly have not spent enough time walking around in it.
James Soderholm is Associate Lecturer at the University of Kent and Professor of Humanities at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, in Canterbury, UK. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org