If one of the measures of work of art’s continuing relevance is its ability to inspire debate, To Kill a Mockingbird remains demonstrably current. It is most famous for tackling race, the defining Western societal theme of the past 50 years. It is, then, germane in that way alone. Yet it accomplishes so much more. The recent publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman provides English teachers an occasion to reacquaint themselves with To Kill a Mockingbird and the issues and concerns which surround its teaching, and perhaps to, reflect upon their own reasons for including it in, or dismissing it from, their curriculum.
While To Kill a Mockingbird remains a staple of many (mostly grade ten) classes, its position in the canon has been much scrutinized. Many newer teachers are reluctant to tackle the novel, bothered or offended by its use of the “N word” or its supposed depiction of the black residents of Maycomb as uni-dimensional, or as diminished or helpless. Perhaps they’re simply leery of the reaction of parents (many of whom, alas, have not read the novel). In recent years, school administrations at all levels have been widely known to shrink from any accusation, however ill-informed or wrong-headed, of political incorrectness. To Kill a Mockingbird, fifty-five years after its publication, remains hot stuff. Not hot enough for others, however, who regard the novel as only marginally relevant, quaint and insufficiently radical for these prickly times.
Both arguments are tainted with presentism, the tendency to interpret past works through a modern lens, imposing upon them contemporary values and sensibilities. Highly fashionable in academia for decades, where, too often, the “critical thinking” so heartily encouraged by Ministry documents is mistaken for—if not replaced by—simplistic fault-finding and smug dismissal. Context—historical, cultural and socio-political—falls sad victim to the apparent desire to offer what passes for bold new thought, but which too often lacks depth, breadth, substance or nuance.
Go Set a Watchman, a previously unpublished pre-Mockingbird draft, raised many an eyebrow with its depiction of Atticus Finch as a died-in-the-wool Southern racist, questioning Scout’s support for “them.” This, oddly, has resulted in a divided reaction in line with that outlined above. It has cemented certain readers’ (and teachers’) belief in Mockingbird’s Atticus as the perfect man, the saintly idealist. (This can possibly be attributed to narrative technique; Atticus is seen through the eyes of an adoring daughter, as well as through the nostalgic mists of time.) Conversely, it seems to have inspired others to detect racist—or at least unenlightened—tendencies in his words and actions. For example, Atticus, they suggest, is hardly a heroic liberator. He does not openly volunteer to defend Tom Robinson, but must be appointed, and he accepts the role only grudgingly. Both arguments, while attractive, are superficial. Atticus is a much more complex character than either the cardboard hero or the closet racist. Famously reclusive, Harper Lee has been loathe to expand on her authorial intentions, and has demonstrated wisdom in her refusal to wade into the discussion. (The extent to which she is able, at this late date, is at issue also.) It is, then, up to us, as educators, to detect the core value of this remarkable novel.
Both admirers and critics might consider that Mockingbird does not seek to promote culture-shaking revolution, but rather to capture the first, tentative steps toward racial justice taken by a man very much of his time and place. Atticus possesses the courage to inch, and then to step, away from the entrenched racist tradition within which he was raised. Also, Atticus has not only the reputation and sanctity of his age-old family name to consider, but the safety of his children as well. His reluctance, then, is a deeply real and human response. Further, he observes the racism in his community from a widening perspective, and, rather than leaping to righteous condemnation, attempts to understand and explain its roots, the better to undertake its defeat. He quietly suffers his sister Alexandra’s smug patronizing, but counteracts her suggestions. He is outspoken in his distaste for the boorish. As he pointedly instructs, only “trash” use the “N word.” The Finch children observe these early explorations of the complexities of race relations, and learn well. As we discover in Go Set a Watchman, Scout grows to fulfill this new, more enlightened awareness more fully (as I prefer to see her older brother Jem doing, as an activist civil rights lawyer, rather than dying young, as he does in the “new” novel).
Education gained through experience, Harper Lee insists, can overcome ignorance. Lee approaches touchy and disturbing realities gently but not squeamishly. Students are right to cringe, as Atticus does, when they encounter racist patter, or, indeed, any act of thoughtless abuse.
Those who deride the novel for its supposed quaintness are advised to consider the deft handling of the murder of Tom Robinson. After his conviction (the absurdity of which is openly demonstrated), Tom, as the official story goes, is shot as he attempts to escape prison. Lee carefully weaves the simple fact of his having been shot seventeen times with the previous lynch mob scene. Young readers follow the threads to discover the horrid truth. In her lack of stridency she not only demonstrates respect for her readers, but also delivers a thunderous judgement. However subtle she may be, Harper Lee is not afraid to point fingers or to swing from the floor at the mad dogs among us.
It is true, though, that the world has surely changed. Not as much as we would like to think, however, and thus To Kill a Mockingbird remains powerfully contemporary. We see this as young African American and Canadian men die in the streets, as the debates surrounding immigrants and refugees rage, as the Truth and Reconciliation process continues and as the xenophobic rantings of Donald Trump garner headlines, revealing the residual effects of centuries of institutionalized racism. But, as mentioned earlier, To Kill a Mockingbird ventures beyond race; its embrace envelopes gender identity issues and, indeed, includes all those affected by ignorance and narrow-mindedness: the dispossessed, the outliers and fringe-dwellers, those for whom the world is too often a callous and frightening place.
To Kill a Mockingbird was not written to be taught. As she laboured, Harper Lee could not have known her masterpiece would become, and rightly remain, a foundational text. To be sure, it is not a treatise on race relations in the twenty-first century, and, possibly, the black characters are as uni-dimensional as, clearly, the white characters are to them. Certainly there are more modern takes on the issues from more diverse voices, and, by all means, students should read them, but few can match the sheer scope of Lee’s humanity. Those who would trumpet Mockingbird as the final word on the subject, or who would dismiss it as insufficiently radical for their more modern sensibilities or who would seek to downplay its importance to the furtherance of racial equality, might consider that, perhaps, rather than perching atop a soapbox or pulpit, Harper Lee chose to explore, in an intimate, balanced manner, the humble and resoundingly real beginnings of social change. To relegate To Kill a Mockingbird to the end of the class bookshelf is to deny readers an opportunity to experience the moving depiction of humanity struggling to evolve, and it is this that remains its enduring lesson.