My first copy was dog-eared and sunbaked, the pages brittle and brown, as if the paperback had rested in the back window of an old Pontiac instead of on a library shelf. Some kind of pestilence – water bugs, I believe – had gotten to it before I did, and it was hard to tell, as I turned to that first page, which of us would get more from it.
I was an ignorant teenage schoolboy and read it because a teacher told me to, prodded as if by pitchfork down the hot, dull streets of a town called Maycomb in the desolate 1930s, and pressed into the company of a boy named Jem, a mouthy girl named Scout, and an odd little chucklehead named Dill whom, I am fairly sure, I would have beaten up and relieved of his milk money. I would have preferred the Hardy Boys, preferred to gallop alongside the Riders of the Purple Sage, but I was afraid of teachers then, and so I read. “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town . . . Somehow, it was hotter then . . . There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go . . .”
I missed a few words, bug-eaten or besmirched, but I read on, to a shot-down rabid dog, and a neighbour, Boo Radley, in hiding, and a young black man named Tom Robinson who is wrongly accused of raping a young white woman. And, of course, there is Atticus Finch, the lawyer who offers reason, and kindness, and some thin hope. He tries to save Robinson, but, as the pages turned, I saw that it would take more than one good Alabama man to make this sorry world all right. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, but it was the middle 1970s before it reached the Roy Webb Road in Calhoun County, Alabama, and me. I began reading Harper Lee’s novel in the skimpy shade of a pine outside my grandmother’s house, fat beagles pressing against me, begging for attention, ignored. At dark, I kept reading, first on the couch, a bologna sandwich in one hand, then in my bed, by the light of a 60-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling on an orange drop cord. When my mother came in from her job as a maid and unplugged my chandelier, I replayed the story in my head until it was crowded out by dreams.
I woke the next morning, smelling biscuits, and reached for the book again. I remember this, some 35 years later, the same way I remember where I was when Elvis died. Some things are just important. And as the pages fluttered by, the ragged 50-cent paperback shook my conscience, broke my heart, and took me into its landscape forever. I believed, at the time, I was the only person in the whole world who felt like that. It was my first grown-up book, a story not pat or perfect, about children coming of age in a time when reality falls wretchedly short of ideals. Even as a lynch mob threatens Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch refuses to condemn the cruel conventions of his community and is willing to absorb the mob’s hatred himself, stoic, till a villain named Robert E. Lee Ewell strikes at his own children. Atticus is not the book’s only hero. Another steps from the closet, the shadows.
Many people see To Kill a Mockingbird as a civil rights novel, but it transcends that issue. It is a novel about right and wrong, about kindness and meanness. As a child in rural Alabama in the 1960s, I had seen such stories burn past me, somehow unreal and distant, as buses were overturned, as civil rights workers were beaten or shot from speeding cars. I did not truly feel those hatreds, or understand them, until I read that book. Now that I know this novel’s place in history, I wonder: How many readers have gone with me into those pages and returned in some way different, in some way changed? I am not talking of book sales, although Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is one of the most popular books of all time. It has sold an estimated 40 million copies, is a staple of school curricula, and has been translated into some 40 languages.It also made a glorious transition to screen in 1962 in the Academy Award–winning adaptation written by the great Horton Foote and starring Gregory Peck.
Lee, who never wrote another novel, has been covered up to her chin in awards and citations and presented with every trophy short of a gold monkey. But her novel’s finest, most profound legacy is quieter, almost private, something between Lee and one reader at a time. You get to know readers, a little bit, if you write books for a living. You get to see the depth to which they love a book. To Kill a Mockingbird is not just the kind of book people hold in their hearts; it’s the kind people hold to their hearts, wrapping their arms around it and pressing it against their breasts as if they could feel a heartbeat in its paper. I have seen people do that to copies signed and unsigned. We writers should all be so lucky, to write a book people actually hug. Don Brown, a retired newspaper editor who works across the hall from me at the University of Alabama, told me he has picked up countless books in his life, but this one he never really put down. “I don’t think you do,” said Brown, now 73, who has a signed copy. “And I am so proud of it.” It is not a complicated book, to him. “It is a sermon,” he said, “on courage as much as anything else.”
In the collected essays Critical Insights: To Kill a Mockingbird, author and English professor Edythe M. McGovern notes that a 1991 survey by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress Center for the Book found the novel was “most often cited as making a difference in people’s lives, second only to the Bible.”
For Southerners, especially those who were alive in the segregated South, it was a reminder of our finer nature. As so much poison spewed from so many courthouses, statehouses, political platforms, and Klan picnics, it was a kind of poultice, a story set in the 1930s that should have drawn out that meanness, and shamed the wrongdoers of the 1960s into doing the right thing. It did not. But it was, I guess, the closest thing to an antidote we, as a region, would have for a long, long time. We were not political, my family and me. My people swung hammers, poured steel, heaved sticks of pulpwood onto ragged trucks, and made a little liquor deep in the pines along the Alabama-Georgia line. The women worked hunched over the spinning frames in the mill, breathing air that was thick with cotton. Men broke down truck tyres in dirt-floor garages, their sledges ringing through the trees, and broke each other’s bones, now and then, over a woman, or an insult, or an open jug. They sinned and got saved, backslid, then did it all over again, jerking in the grip of the Holy Ghost as if they had grabbed hold of a naked wire. They did a little time, some of them, till their mamas bailed them out, but most of them just punched a time clock, fed their babies, and watched wrestling live from Birmingham on their black-and-white TVs. In late summer and early fall, they picked cotton in the fields beside black men and women, and if there was ever a conflict there, I was too dumb to see it. My mother worked on her knees cleaning the homes of the better-off white ladies in town and took in laundry. If anyone needed a prophet to tell us we were better than someone, better than anyone, I guess it was us. He came to us from Barbour County, a pugnacious little man named George Wallace who promised to protect us from the outside agitators who were coming down here to destroy our way of life.
It made no sense to me as I started school in Calhoun County in 1965. Were they going to take away our sledges? Were they going to unplug my mother’s iron? Were they going to stop us from digging a ditch? But still, we went to see him, to see the show. I remember a rally in Anniston, the county seat, remember a band playing “Dixie”, and an undulating canopy of Confederate battle flags, a whole auditorium of Stars and Bars and fluttering red. The little man got everyone all worked up. The guv’ment in Washington would not force us to go to school or otherwise have unwanted close association with coloured people, he promised. I did not really understand it much. It was, though, quite a show. Not long after that, our daddy got fairly well drunk and ran off. Things got bad for a while, till the black family that lived down the road brought my mother some food, including some good corn. I liked corn, so I liked them. I was six, I believe. I did not need Harper Lee to tell me it was wrong to treat people badly because of colour. I was raised right that way by my gentle mother. What Lee did was make me think about it, longer, deeper, as a man. I would not stand in the company of men who spouted meanness, or be a go-along, come-along racist for the sake of so-called good manners or peace in the family. It is not much, maybe, to say, to claim. But there was more to me after reading that book than before.
I hear it from people my age over and over again. Many scholars have said that To Kill a Mockingbird was never intended as a civil rights book and, powerful as its message was, did not register among the demagogues and night riders who tried, with terror and violence and the law itself, to hold back time. It was not widely banned by people in power, merely ignored. The violence of the 1960s, the murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi, the infamous bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and more, unfolded even as the book was still being lauded in literary circles. But as those crimes smoked and then grew cold, the message in To Kill a Mockingbird lived on. Doug Jones was a college student at the University of Alabama in the middle 1970s, then a law student at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University. He remembers that he watched the movie first, then read the book.
“It was a dose of conscience,” he said, “of right versus wrong.” Some three decades later, he was the US Attorney and then special prosecutor who convicted the two surviving Klansmen who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls, in 1963. They had bragged of their crime, those men, certain no-one would reach so far back in time to punish them. But Atticus, even in black and white, had endured in the mind of Jones and others who worked to make their case. “The duty of a lawyer is to seek justice,” Jones said. “You do it in a professional way, even if it is not popular. I have read that book a dozen times, sometimes read just bits and pieces, but I keep coming back to it. It lives.” The book has had such an impact on our society that some literary types have apparently forgotten that it is not, in fact, real and debate Atticus as if he were a historical figure, now mouldering in the grave. Atticus, some say, fell short. He should have championed civil rights, should have railed in that courtroom, not bowed his head and let Tom Robinson go off to prison, hopeless, to be shot down trying to escape. Others defend Atticus, spitting mad. Maybe he does live.
Don Noble, professor emeritus of English at the University of Alabama, wrote it this way in Critical Insights: To Kill a Mockingbird:“Most readers, over these intervening years, have not expected sainthood from Atticus, and thus have not been miffed at his flaws. Most readers, in fact, understand the novel pretty well. Atticus is a decent man trying to do the right thing, and when we evaluate Atticus and his behaviour in the privacy of our own hearts, it might be good to remember what many mothers have told their children over the years. What if everyone did that? What if everyone behaved that way? Well, just imagine if everyone did behave like Atticus Finch in Alabama, or anywhere for that matter, in 1936. It would be a better world, I think.” As much as I loved that book, I was a bit conflicted. It is easy to love it if your people are from the aristocracy, even a faded one. In my heart, I knew my people were at least marginally closer to the Ewells, who wreaked the misery in Lee’s book, than the educated, respectable Finches. “No economic fluctuations,” Lee wrote, “changed their status.” That drew a little blood.
It may be one reason why I never sought her out, to thank her. Over my writing life, friends and others told me they were making pilgrimages to Lee’s hometown, Monroeville. It was well known she was a private person and did not do interviews, but their love of her book was so strong, they had to try to see her. Some succeeded. But partly out of genuine deference, partly because I would have felt like a clod, knocking on her door, I let her be.
Then, in 2009, I won our state’s lifetime writing award (though I wondered if that meant I was about dead). It was named, of course, for Harper Lee. “You should go see her,” people said. I asked Wayne Greenhaw, a longtime friend of Lee’s, if he thought that it would be OK for me to see her, and he said he did not think she would mind. I walked into the room to a slight, grey-haired woman in glasses, shook her hand, listened as she told me it was a pleasure to see me. I told her the pleasure was mine. Then, after untold conversations with newsmakers around this world, after a few thousand book signings, after a lifetime of small talk at early-morning television shows, literary festivals, and National Public Radio, I had nothing to say. I just wanted to listen. If I talked, I would miss something, for sure. She chatted as people came in and out of the room, made plans for lunch, and spoke briefly of one old friend, a strong, confident woman she once knew.
“She,” Lee said, “is the straw that stirs the liquor.”
Lovely. Writers talk like that.
She said she had never seen the award, so we retrieved it from the car. It is a beautiful bronze replica of the courthouse clock tower in Monroeville, about the size of a mailbox and about the weight of a sack of fertiliser. “Oh, my,” she said. “Yes, ma’am,” I said. “It’s huge.” Writers do not talk like that. For a long time, her phrase stuck in my head.
The straw that stirs the liquor.
That is her, I believe.