Flashback to St. Paul Lutheran School. Addison, Illinois. A Seventh Grade classroom, each teenager with a book in their hands. The cover is Pepto-Bismol pink, featuring a gnarled tree with treasures inside, all presided over by a glorious mockingbird.
Little did those teenagers know that from the first moment they opened that book, their little lives would be changed in such immense ways. I know, because I was one of them, little Steven, a few feet shorter than any other kid in the class, but with twice the energy. But, despite my short stature, my love of reading was just starting to mature and blossom. I remember staring at the cover of Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron when I was in Fifth Grade, knowing it was beyond my means to devour, but smiling at what joy the future would hold.
Reading that book, we were all still formulating the people we would become. Some of us became businessmen, some of us became teachers and some of us became writers. All three of the archetypes are present in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this book we got out first glimpses into a world of the past that was close enough for our little souls to connect to personally. The challenges of childhood, the joy of imagination and the simple pleasures of a bright summer day are present in its pages.
My next experience with the book was my sophomore year of high school. Again, in English Class, we were required to delve back into the world of Maycomb, Alabama. But, this time, we were required to fly into the novel with an ulterior motive – to ultimately write a journal from the vantage point of one of the characters. I read the novel and, as always, my eyes fluttered to the most flamboyant character in the narrative – Aunt Alexandra, the severely-racist sister of Atticus Finch. I sunk my teeth into her vitriolic rhetoric and really dove into the racism of the character. My final journal, at the end of the semester, came back with a note from the teacher sprawled on it: “You got into the character so well, but I DO think Alexandra became LESS racist as the novel progressed.” Though I vehemently disagreed, I still accepted her critique. You can’t blame a boy for tryin’!
And, just recently, anticipating the much-anticipated and maligned release of Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, I read Mockingbird for the third time. This time, after a period of nine years, I entered with open eyes back into this world of the past, and of my past.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a book with such a simple premise – a girl and her brother exploring their neighborhood and their fears. But, within that framework, we see so much of human nature. We see the wise Atticus, the kind yet saucy Miss Maudie, the bumbling Sheriff Tate, the bitter old woman Mrs. Dubose, the myserious Boo Radley, the racist town-folk and, of course, the persecuted Tom Robinson.
Each character represents a type of struggle and each, in their own way, overcome that struggle. Atticus struggles with his own culture heritage, while representing a black man most want to lynch. Scout and Jem struggle with their own place in childhood, both seeing the people around them in a different light, their naivety becoming their saving grace. The neighbors struggle with age, alcoholism and racism and, in their own way, either succeed or stay stagnant.
According to Mockingbird, steeping yourself in “the same old thing” is what destroys a culture. In the book, Racism is a national pastime. But, as we know, Racism is the most primitive and destructive force known to learned man. It strips men of their sense of self and boils them down nothing but cultural stereotypes and the color of their skin. Racism is not innate in any person, just as hate isn’t. Racism is learned and passed down like an old folktale that becomes more twisted and destructive as it weaves its way through the generations. Philosophically, Racism is destructive in terms of not seeing a person for what they really are. Seeing only a person’s skin color, and determining his attributes from that, is something you would think children would be capable of. But, surprisingly, children are the ones usually free from Racism, unless it is pressed upon them by their family.
As we see Scout do in the novel, most children will simply ingratiate and introduce themselves to a black child or a Hispanic child or an Asian child. They don’t see the defining characteristics of their appearance or, if they do, it is only a passing fancy, not to be dwelled upon. Boo Radley, once seen as a sort of monster by most children in Maycomb, becomes the hero in the end - the faceless man becoming the cornerstone.
Harper Lee, who died this past week at the age of 89, taught several generations of children to see life as it should be, a world where Racism is seen as a plague and we look at a person, not by the color of his skin, but by his ideals and his worldview. The world of To Kill a Mockingbird, in terms of literature, is a distillation of a culture bred by Racism. The world of the novel could be real, but the tone is heightened and the story is presented almost as a fable or a myth. You have the archetypes of a myth, the heroes and villains fighting against persecution and evil, and a character that represents the ideal man, in Atticus Finch.
Atticus Finch is the ideal man because he knows what he believes (though in Go Set a Watchman we see that view distorted.) In Mockingbird, Atticus sees the world through a Philosopher’s eyes. He sees the terrible effects of racism and segregation on his beloved town and he works, in his own way, to bring change and peace to its torn inhabitants. Like Atlas, Atticus holds the town of Maycomb, Alabama on his shoulders, holding together the bits and pieces of the town he loves. He is a man of the law and a man of reason. He knows what is right, he knows what is wrong and he knows how to tell the different. To Atticus, there isn’t a grey area of doubt, there is only certainty in his quest.
In the wake of Harper Lee’s death, I think we should reassess our place in the world. We need to transport ourselves to who we were when we first sat down and opened that book that millions would say changed their lives for the better. Would the children we were then be happy at what we’ve become or have we gone down a path that is harmful and dire? Would we, as Scout and Jem do in the novel, look at our future and know, with certainty, that our lives would be secure, if only we hold close to our ideals and never let them go.
Transport yourself back to that time of wonder and innocence. Innocence is a great tool, in a way, because it allows us to see ideals and morals for what they are, not what anyone else has told us. We can create our own world in which we believe what we believe and live how we want to live, treating every person we meet with the same respect they give us and returning the favor.
The world of To Kill a Mockingbird is not that far out of our grasp. We only need reach out, with purpose and grab it. To quote Atticus’ courtroom speech: “A court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.”
Whether it be a courtroom, a town and or a world, they are only as sound as the men who make it up.