The death of an author rarely generates much news coverage nowadays,
especially when the writer's best work is more than a half-century old. But
Harper Lee is a special case, and her most famous novel
To Kill a
Mockingbird
is not just widely read, but beloved. I frequently hear it
mentioned when people list their favorite books, and its appeal is deeply
felt even by those who pay little attention to the shifting tastes of modern
fiction.

Yet for all that, it is a strange book,
luminous in its depiction of Southern
life, but stubbornly resistant to the
kind of pigeonholing practiced by the
literary establishment.

Frequently when someone asks me
about a book I’m reading, the question
is phrased as a matter of classification.
"What kind of book is that?" is a typical
inquiry.  And I can hardly object to such
a question. We live in a commerce-driven
culture that assigns every book a category, and sometimes a sub-category
if not a sub-sub-category.  

I’m reminded of the British interlocutor who knowingly refers to the
'lower-upper-middle class' and somehow manages to convey a very precise
grasp of what each of these conflicting modifiers signifies.  Books, in the
modern day, are much the same—so much so that I would hardly blink an
eye if someone referred to a new novel as a zombie romantic comedy
mystery or a fantasy time travel cowboy story.  In the jargon of marketing,
the publishing houses are simply exploring the potential for category
expansion.

With that in mind, I ask the obvious
question: What kind of book did the
late Ms. Lee give us with her
To Kill
a Mockingbird
? And I find it surprisingly
difficult to answer that query. This book
is such a staple of classroom assignments
and recommended reading lists, that
readers have come to ignore how strange
and anomalous it actually is.

I suspect that most readers of this novel
recall the courtroom scenes most vividly.  
An Alabama lawyer, Atticus Finch, takes on the responsibility of defending
an African-American, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a young
white woman, Mayella Ewell. The story is set in the mid-1930s, and Finch
faces almost insurmountable odds in attempting to secure and acquittal for
a black man from a white jury. When Lee’s novel first arrived in bookstores
on July 11, 1960, that was the most timely aspect of her story.

Just a few weeks before the book’s publication, President Eisenhower had
signed into the law the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which aimed to remove
voter registration abuses in communities very similar to the one depicted
in Lee’s novel. But even as
To Kill a Mockingbird climbed up the bestseller
list, stories of conflict and reprisals continued to dominate the daily news.  
On May 28, Martin Luther King had been acquitted by an all-white jury in
Alabama, but he was arrested again in October during a sit-in at an Atlanta
department store, and released on bond  from Reidsville prison only after
the intervention of Robert Kennedy.

When we focus on this core plot, we are
reminded both of the courtroom procedural
story, a popular subgenre of detective fiction.  
Author Harper Lee even indulges our interest
in the whodunit elements of the case,
sprinkling in unexpected clues and surprising
bits of evidence, and allowing protagonist
Finch the opportunity to show off his skills
of detection. Yet this is hardly a conventional
crime story, and again and again the skin
color of witnesses and defendant loom larger
than the specifics of the alleged crime. Lee
shows us that the residents of Maybcomb,
Alabama may crowd into the courtroom with
their enthusiasm for the spectacle at play in
their home town, but few of them have any interest in following the steps
of reasoning that Finch employs in determining who actually assaulted
Mayella Ewell.  Their real concern is maintenance of the social hierarchy
and local conventions of power and propriety.

We might be tempted, given this emphasis, to classify To Kill a
Mockingbird as a political or socio-political novel. Yet the story of Tom
Robinson, for all its centrality to the message of the work, accounts for less
than half of Lee’s narrative.  In fact, this story doesn’t emerge in any detail
until readers are a hundred pages into the book.  If we judged To Kill a
Mockingbird by its opening chapters, we would assign it to a very different
category.  In these pages, Lee has presented a comic coming-of-age novel,
filled with amusing scenes in the classroom and playgrounds of Maycomb.

Indeed, I can’t help but be reminded of that other novel—perhaps the
greatest work of American fiction to come out of the South—which also
involved an wise-beyond-his-years youngster as narrator amidst a story of
racial tensions and difficult moral choices. Just as Mark Twain had
achieved with Huckleberry Finn, Lee somehow manages to tell a very adult
story from the perspective of a child.  Jean Louis “Scout” Finch is around
six years old when the novel begins, and even though she matures
considerably during the two-year period covered in the book, she still
remains a very unlikely character to take control of the narrative voice in a
tale so filled with violence and the hypocritical power structures of pre-
Civil Rights era Southern society.

Yet much of the power of this book derives from this uncharacteristic
choice on Lee’s part. By putting an innocent child in the bird’s eye seat, Lee
is able to lay bare the hypocrisy at play in Maycomb, Alabama. In many
regards, a child notices much less than an adult, but Lee’s genius lay in
realizing that in a few instances the youngster perceives more than grown-
ups—and for the simple reason that the innocent youth is immune to the
complicated excuses and rationalizations that societies use to justify their
worst actions.

Have we answered the question we started with?  Is To Kill a Mockingbird
a penetrating coming-of-age story, which like Twain’s best work, combines
humor and humility, satire and social commentary?  Yes, but it is still more
than that.  In the book’s early chapters, Lee develops at great length the
story of the enigmatic Boo Radley, who never leaves his family’s scary-
looking house.  Here Lee shows a unmistakable allegiance to the Southern
gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.  But at other
junctures, I am reminded of the existential Southern fiction of Walker
Percy, or the mocking and self-deprecating Bayou storytelling of John
Kennedy Toole’s
A Confederacy of Dunces.  And there’s a bit of Truman
Capote’s artful mixture of fact and fiction in these pages—in fact, one of the
characters in
To Kill a Mockingbird is modeled after Capote, who was Lee’
s childhood neighbor and a lifelong friend.  

I am forced to conclude that
To Kill a Mockingbird is part and parcel of all
these complex lineages.  Perhaps more than any other book of its time, it
combined all of the main traditions of Southern fiction into a single
seamless work.  Lee deserves our praise not just for taking this hodge-
podge of sources and inspirations and turning them into a classic and
bestseller, but even more for doing it with such aplomb and grace that we
are hardly aware of the many different traditions at play in her writing.  
Even stranger, this same book managed to convey a rejection of much of
the Southern heritage, at least of its tragic and unseemly side, even as it
embodied every aspect of it.  

As I mull over this achievement, I am tempted to complain about the
stubbornness of an author who could pull this off, and then retire from
writing and publishing (at least until greedy outsiders stepped in). Yet at
the same time, I can only nod my head in agreement with her original
decision. For it was hardly likely that Lee, or any other Southern writer,
could have pulled off such a remarkable achievement a second time.  


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date: February 19, 2016
A Tribute to Harper Lee &
Her Great Southern Novel

By Ted Gioia
Perhaps more than any
other book of its time,
To Kill a Mockingbird
combined all of the main
traditions of Southern
fiction into a single
seamless work.
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Harper Lee in Monroeville Alabama, 1961
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