July 7 2010 12:00 AM

’To Kill a Mockingbird’ still inspires debate


Harper Lee and her book “To Kill a Mockingbird” have something in common: They are both enigmas.

Fifty years after its publication, "Mockingbird" is still the subject of intense debate. Lee, who never published another novel, has not said a word about the novel’s meaning or offered any insight into the ambiguities of race and equal justice laid out in the story.

“Mockingbird” is one of those rare books you don’t have to prompt people to talk about. Many still remember the names of some of the major characters: Atticus, Boo, Scout and Dill. It’s not important if readers know that Dill was based on Lee’s good friend and associate Truman Capote, but it does contribute to the mystique.

Since its publication the book has sold more than 30 million copies and still sells more than 1 million copies a year, most of them to high school and college students who study the book in literature classes.

"Mockingbird" will be the subject of a day-long reading at Schuler Books Sunday. It’s a fund-raiser for the Capital Area Literacy Coalition.

(Editor’s note: City Pulse columnist Bill Castanier and City Pulse publisher Berl Schwartz are among the celebrity readers.)

By now it’s reasonable to expect the book would be stilted and dated. So why is it still worth talking about?

In recent articles in The New Yorker, Michigan Law Review, The Wall Street Journal and other publications, writers have tried to answer those questions.

Wall Street Journal columnist Allen Barra, writing in the June 24 issue, went so far as to call "Mockigbird" hero Atticus Finch “a repository of cracker-barrel epigrams” and that the book is a “sugar-coated myth of Alabama’s past that millions have come to believe.”

Tsk¸tsk — he even goes on to say that its “bloodless, liberal humanism is sadly dated.”

James Seaton, East Lansing literary critic and Michigan State University professor of English, would agree and disagree. He said he typically uses the book in his Law and Literature class, pairing it with the 1962 film adaptation, which stars Gregory Peck. Seaton asks the students to compare the two, which he says are quite different in how the moral lessons and characters are depicted.

“The movie made it easier to accept the ambiguities of the book," Seaton says. "The movie simplifies the moral issues of racism and equal justice.”

Through the eyes of a young girl named Scout, the book follows how Scout’s father, lawyer Atticus Finch, defends Tom Robinson, an African-American unjustly accused of the rape of a white woman in a small Southern town in the 1930s. Although Finch attempts to bring equal justice into play at great personal and familial risk, Robinson is convicted and killed while trying to escape.

When Boo saves the life of Scout and her brother, Jem, but the act results in the death of another man, a great moral dilemma is created as the murder is covered up with the full knowledge of Finch.

Seaton sees this cover-up as the book’s great flaw.

“The book fails morally," he says. "There is a fundamental disconnect between Atticus the lawyer and how he is saying ’Boo is basically good. Let’s forget the guy he killed.’ A reader is forced to ask: Is equal justice served?"

Seaton believes one reason the book has endured is that Atticus Finch represents the attitude of “condemning the sin and not the sinner”: Everything else is stripped away. Finch in no way contemplates or proposes upsetting any other apple cart in the Jim Crow South. Therefore, a Ku Klux Klan leader can also be a good guy, and a racist neighbor can be heroic for kicking a drug habit.

That’s also the reason that the book has come under criticism of late. Author Malcolm Gladwell writing in The New Yorker, says Atticus’ approach is “about accommodation, not reform.”

Maybe what the critics are missing is that is exactly why the book endures. Rather than hitting you over the head with anti-Klan/anti-racist/anti-everything demagoguery, Lee makes the reader decide what’s right and what’s wrong.

"Mockingbird," which won a Pulitzer Prize, could be more nuanced and subtle, but the first half of the book is arguably one of the purest examples of Southern fiction writing as it sets the stage and context for the more dramatic trial and murders.

Local author Andrea King Collier (“Still With Me”) said she continues to re-read the book every couple of years.

She says "Mockingbird" "was one of the first ’big-people’ books I read. It was written in a child’s voice — about the same age as me — telling a deep story about race, culture and class, along with a mystery. It didn’t get any better than that.”

Collier, who grew up in Gary, Ind., said her family had moved up north a genertion earlier. When she first discovered "Mockingbird," “it was during a time in the ’60s when the whole notion of race was huge, and (the story) didn’t seem remarkable to me from the standpoint of race relations.”

Collier said today’s younger African- American readers may be a little skeptical.

“Younger kids look at Atticus and think he might as well be Abraham Lincoln.”

Randy Riley, the Library of Michigan’s coordinator of Special Collections and Notable Books Program, vividly recalls reading the book while growing up in the nearly all-white rural Ionia County community in the late 1970s. His daughter, an East Lansing High School student, read the book last summer. Riley said the trial resonated strongly with her.

“The book represents a time when the liberal white guy was thought to be crucial to the Civil Rights’ movement. Atticus has to save the day. But that doesn’t ring as true today.”

He also thinks the outsider theme which Lee introduced into the book in the persona of Boo Radley provides an important moral lesson.

“Boo Radley is an outsider guy and is considered horrible, but you learn the boogeyman isn’t the boogeyman — he’s the hero.”

Conversely, you also learn Atticus Finch isn’t always heroic.

As Seaton says, “At the end of the novel a white man is the murderer, and (Atticus) lets him off. So who’s truly guilty and who’s truly innocent? The message isn’t so simple, or is it? And that’s exactly what Lee may have had in mind 50 years ago."

"To Kill a Mockingbird" reading

for Capital Area Literacy Coalition 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, July 11
Schuler Books 2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing Featured readers
include: David Andrews, Chad Badgero, Tim Barron, Ruth McNally Barshaw,
Bill Castanier, Deborah Diesen, Tom Ferris, Marella Gore-Robinson,
Monica Harris, Ben Hassenger, the Helder family, Addiann Hinds, Amy
Huntley, Evan Pinsonnault, John Roche, Berl Schwartz, Mike Stratton,
Will Tieman and Judge William C. Whitbeck