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To Kill a Mockingbird


To Kill a Mockingbird coverHarper Lee’s novel was published in the year I was born, 1960, and describes events that happened in 1938, just three years before the birth of my father. Its portrayal of the deeply ingrained racism (and sexism) of the American South at this late date is very disturbing, though not surprising. The movie “42″ is in the theaters right now to remind us that it wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson was allowed to play alongside white players in major league baseball. I grew up as a rabid baseball fan, and to this day I don’t believe I have a greater sports hero than Henry Aaron. On and off the field, it is hard to imagine a man more worthy of admiration. Yet, he was born in Alabama—Mockingbird’s setting—where as late as the early 1960s he could not legally eat in the same room in a restaurant as his white teammates.[1]

Lee’s novel was one catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and it certainly deserves a place among great 20th century American novels for that impact alone.

To Kill a Mockingbird is more than a novel about race and the rape trial of Tom Robinson. This was something of a revelation to me. It has been more than 30 years since I read the novel, and at least 20 years since I saw the movie starring Gregory Peck. Though I remembered the central part Boo Radley played in it, I did not remember (and maybe I never appreciated) the extent to which the book is Scout’s coming-of-age story and its portraits, at times loving ones, of the characters of a small depression-era Alabama town. I would call Miss Maudie an unforgettable character, but I had in fact forgotten her.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is listed at #14 on Bachblog’s 113 Great Novels of the 20th Century. It is also ranked at #8 on Bachblog’s 46 Great Crime Novels of the 20th Century. It was first published in 1960.

This novel’s inclusion on my list of the 46 Best Crime Novels of the 20th Century seems odd. I wouldn’t think to classify it with this genre. Despite its crimes and the courtroom drama, I don’t believe it is likely to be found in the Mystery section at any bookstore. But two of the primary sources I used compile my list included it, so there it is.

Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for American fiction in 1961 and is apparently the most-read book by American high school students. But it has incited controversy: occasionally banned for its use of racial profanities and attacked—believe it or not—by parent groups for its depiction of a rape trial (gasp!). Interestingly (perhaps only to me), a source I did not use to compile my lists—the Library Journal—ranked it as the “Best Novel of the 20th Century.”

Periodically, it is suggested that Truman Capote wrote parts or all of this novel.[2] These suggestions have been discredited. Harper Lee’s reluctance to talk about the work, and her failure to publish any other book have perhaps kept this suggestion alive.

Notes

  1. A relevant statute read “It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment.” Mayella Ewell’s inability to acknowledge her own attraction to Tom Robinson can be understood in the context of white Alabama’s paranoia about the sexuality of black men. One law on the books: “No colored person shall serve as a barber [to] white women or girls.” Another one that is horrifying in its implications: “No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms or hospitals, either public or private, where negro men are placed.” There doesn’t seem to be an exception there to apply in life-or-death circumstances. See examples of Jim Crow laws. [^]
  2. Capote was a childhood and lifelong friend of Lee, and the character of Dill is thought to be based on him. [^]

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