Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

The book and its movie

By Morris Dean

In Chapter 10 of what was until recently Harper Lee’s only novel (1960), Atticus Finch tells his 12-year-old son Jem that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” and the seriousness of this injunction is emphasized by the next sentence:
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
    “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
The “I” of this passage is the book’s narrator, Jem’s younger sister, Scout. Using a precocious child as the narrator of a book about racism in a small Alabama town in the Depression enables the author to question things in a fresh way:
“Jem,” I asked, “what’s a mixed child?”
    “Half white, half colored. You’ve seen ’em, Scout. You know that red-kinkyheaded one that delivers for the drugstore. He’s half white. They’re real sad.”
    “Sad, how come?”
    “They don’t belong anywhere. Colored folks won’t have ’em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have ’em cause they’re colored, so they’re just inbetweens, don’t belong anywhere. But Mr. [Raymond] Dolphus, now, they say he’s shipped two of his up north. They don’t mind ’em up north. Yonder’s one of ’em.”
    A small boy clutching a Negro woman’s hand walked toward us. He looked all Negro to me: he was rich chocolate with flaring nostrils and beautiful teeth. Sometimes he would skip happily, and the Negro woman tugged his hand to make him stop.
    Jem waited until they passed us. “That’s one of the little ones,” he said.
    “How can you tell?” asked Dill [Jem and Scout’s friend]. “He looked black to me.”
    “You can’t sometimes, not unless you know who they are. But he’s half Raymond, all right.”
    “But how can you tell?” I asked.
“I told you, Scout, you just hafta know who they are.”
    “Well how do you know we ain’t Negroes?”
    “Uncle Jack Finch says we really don’t know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain’t, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Ethiopia durin’ the Old Testament.”
    “Well if we came out durin’ the Old Testament it’s too long ago to matter.”
    “That’s what I thought,” said Jem, “but around here once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black....” [Chapter 16, the day of Tom Robinson’s trial on Bob Ewell’s trumped-up charge of raping and beating his 19-year-old daughter]
In Chapter 21, after the jury have been out deliberating for a couple of hours, there’s another reference to mockingbirds. Scout, fighting sleep, asks Jem:
“Ain’t it a long time?” I asked him.
    “Sure is, Scout,” he said happily.
    “Well, from the way you put it, it’d just take five minutes.” [Atticus’s closing argument had been so persuasive, Jem was sure the jury would quickly acquit Tom Robinson.]
    Jem raised his eyebrows. “There are things you don’t understand,” he said, and I was too weary to argue.
    But I must have been reasonably awake, or I would not have received the impression that was creeping into me. It was not unlike one I had last winter, and I shivered, though the night was hot. The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when the mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss
Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of the Radley Place....
    The reference to a cold morning when the carpenters had stopped hammering is back to Chapter 10, where mockingbirds were introduced, and a mad dog was shot and killed near the house where Boo Radley lives.
    Boo had enlivened the vivid imaginations of Scout and Jem and their friend Dill in the book’s opening chapters. Boo is mentioned on the first page of the book:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow....
    When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
All they had of Boo was their imaginations, for they had never seen him. They only knew an account of his being kept indoors all the years since he stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors.
    The next, and final, reference to a mockingbird is in the last chapter (Chapter 31), in which Jem’s “accident” is explained – and prevented from being much worse. Boo makes his first physical appearance in the book when, at night in the nearby woods, he intervenes to prevent Bob Ewell from killing Jem and Scout, then carries Jem home. Sheriff Tate examines the crime scene and proposes to Atticus that the finding will be that Bob Ewell was killed accidentally and was not stabbed by someone else. Then:

Atticus sat looking at the floor for a long time. Finally he raised his head. “Scout,” he said, “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”
    Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might. “Yes sir, I understand,” I reassured him. “Mr. Tate was right.”
    Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. “What do you mean?”
    “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
Thus, from the book’s opening, to closure on virtually the last page, the circle of mockingbird, broken elbow, and Boo Radley is closed in a deft novel of young coming of age.

Until I read To Kill a Mockingbird this week [I listened to a recording], I had long imagined (falsely, as it turns out) that I had already read it, sometime after seeing the 1962 film, starring Gregory Peck, who won the Oscar for best actor – away from Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia), Jack Lemmon (Days of Wine and Roses), and Burt Lancaster (Birdman of Alcatraz).
    But, after watching the film again – the same day I finished reading the book – I knew that the film was a good substitute. Its screenwriter, Horton Foote, had also won an Oscar, after all – for best adapted screenplay. He had managed to bring the book to the screen with little distortion of plot or character. A number of characters were missing, of course, including Atticus’s sister, Alexandra, and a few were combined. Dill’s Aunt Rachel disappeared, with whom he spent summers, but Atticus’s neighbor Miss Stephanie took him in.

    For a special treat, I discovered that the film was Robert Duvall’s debut, as Boo. It was a wordless role that Peck praised many years later (according to the DVD’s bonus material) for powerfully portraying everything essential about the character.

Only recently did the world learn that Harper Lee’s “only” novel was actually her second. Someone discovered a manuscript....
    Go Set a Watchman came out this week, and an article last weekend in a local newspaper quoted people who had been much affected by To Kill a Mockingbird. (I’m writing this in North Carolina, which is divided from Alabama only by the State of Georgia). I wrote to a few friends, telling them that I didn’t think the book [or the movie] affected me as much as it seems to have affected many people in these parts. I wondered whether you needed to be a Southerner to have been much affected, or a particular kind of Southerner....

Jonathan Price wrote back that he couldn’t
remember whether I ever read To Kill a Mockingbird, though as I think about it I probably did, but late in my reading life. I think the novel’s effect was due primarily to the film, which fairly directly followed the film. The film was powerful, moralist, charming, and certainly fit the liberalism of the times. It’s hard to believe many Southerners of that time were fairly sympathetic. But other Americans were. It’s a good novel, but not a great one, in my opinion. Taught in high schools, but not frequently commented on in college or graduate school....
    I suppose what’s remarkable about Harper Lee as a writer is her long silence and her reticence, so she’s kind of a hermit-writer like, to some extent, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, and some others. She’s also someone who published one fine early novel and fell silent, for reasons never quite explained. This seemed the career arc of Marilynne Robinson and, to a lesser extent, Joseph Heller, until their second novels (and others) arrived, some 20 years after the first.
    [F. Scott] Fitzgerald noted, powerfully if inaccurately, many years ago, “In American lives there are no second acts.” He himself seemed to reach a powerful critical and popular peek with The Great Gatsby, but that was his third novel, and there were two more. His first, This Side of Paradise, along with his short stories, were the literary output that occasioned his initial popularity. Harper Lee is certainly quirky, and there has been some doubt about her willingness to publish her second novel (though it was written years ago, before Mockingbird), and undoubtedly the brouhaha over it is unwarranted, but simply a marketing and inevitable ploy. She was right to, from what I know, revise it and sequester it, in favor of Mockingbird, which changed the stance from third person to first, and profited from the innocence and charm of Scout.
    André Duvall wrote:
To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. I was very moved reading it in school. I remember the voice and inflection of my tenth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Cox’s concluding comments on the novel, telling us that it was Harper Lee’s only novel. She wondered what other good writing might have come from Ms. Lee, stating, “It was our loss....” I reread the book three years ago and enjoyed it just as much, perhaps even more so than as a high-school student. Both times, I had tears in my eyes at different points.
    Perhaps being a Southerner did have influence in my being deeply moved by reading this, but I don’t know. I imagine the injustices dealt with in this novel could potentially elicit an emotional response from any American. My favorite character is Atticus Finch. I’ve read that the “new” novel paints a very different picture of Atticus in later life.
    Sharon Stoner felt “rage at the prejudice I saw (in watching the movie).”
    Karen Abbey wrote: “I just read To Kill a Mockingbird a few weeks ago. Of course, I had read it years go also. It is a very touching book and the part about the innocent black man being framed for raping a white girl was extremely sad. I also saw the movie, which I loved. Not sure I want to read the new book.”
    Dawn Burke: “I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I may yet. I have seen the movie and a play of it. Yes, it for sure affected me! I can’t stand injustice against anyone.”
    Ed Rogers “read the book and enjoyed it. Saw the movie and enjoyed it even more. However, I don’t remember the earth moving under my feet. They say the father changed but people living in the South knew all that shit was going on long before Lee wrote the book. I also am kin to Robert E. Lee so I guess she and I are family.”
    Susan C. Price:

i read it in high school. at least 5 times...i still love it and Boo and of course i love him in the movie too...cus he is the fine actor named...Duvall.
    i was “affected” by still has great power for me...and i met Gregory Peck once; we worked with his son on Veterans’ housing projects...i have low expectations of this new book.
    William Silveira:
I did not read To Kill A Mockingbird, but I did see the movie and was very moved by it. Of course I was aware of the racism and violence in the South, but the movie’s portrayal of the violence, ignorance, hatred, and plain evil that existed there made it emotionally very real to me. When I was younger, I had a taste for Southern writers. I read some of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. I remember reading W.J. Cash’s book, The Mind of the South. I think I may have had this interest because in many ways Southern literature reminded me of people I met in my childhood right here in Tulare County, and the social role of black people in the late 40’s and early 50’s here. You have made me think that perhaps I should read Mockingbird myself.
    Bill Duvall:
I saw the movie but I don’t think I ever read the book. I do remember the big cultural difference when we moved from California to Arkansas in ’55. I recall the church I attended having an urgent meeting to decide what to do if a black person should visit. It was a big concern. The low point was handing out tracts one day with a group from the church on the corner of Broadway Street. The title of the tract was “Hi Neighbor.” It was an invitation to visit our church with the longer goal of saving the invitee’s soul from burning in hell for all eternity. A car carrying several black children pulled up to the stop sign and I asked the adult in charge what to do. He said not to give tracts to blacks because they had their own church. Even at a young age, I remember thinking, what if they don’t go to church? My inaction could cause them to spend eternity in hell. As the car drove off, I still remember the sad eyes of a little girl staring at me through the window.
    Vic Midyett:
The movie affected me greatly. I’ve seen it more then once. The book is probably even more affecting. What our government did to the Cherokee Nation is somewhat the same except on thousands of people all at once. Remember, [my wife and I] are both of Cherokee decent. My great grandmother and Shirley’s great, great grandmother.
    It is difficult for either of us to read or watch stories like that and stay positive in life here and now. I tip my hat to all human beings (what Cherokees call peacefully and truthfully enlightened people) for how they as a people have grown past the past. I wish we could sit down face to face for hours over a bottle of wine and discuss this tragic, distasteful, and embarrassing part of American history. It was downright barbaric behavior.
    Ralph Earle: “I was greatly moved by the movie To Kill a Mockingbird when it came out and I saw it in my middle-school days. I am not sure how it would affect me now, and I have never read the book. I do think there are feelings and issues that are specifically Southern, for which I will always be a tourist.”
    Jennifer Neumann: “I did not read To Kill a Mockingbird, somehow. I think my class read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings [an autobiography of Maya Angelou] instead.”
    Skip Saeger:

It has been so long ago that I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and my memory is so bad that I plan on listening to both books. The beauty of a bad memory is I can enjoy a first reading of Mockingbird all over again. Lynn was just telling me that the The New Yorker has a good review of Watchman, which I already started listening to, in the middle of the night, so I’m going to be fair to both myself and the book and start it again. I love a good reader. It doesn’t always happen.
Copyright © 2015 by Morris Dean


  1. Well it sounds like you should be the expert now Morris. I must say that took commitment, good for you.

    1. Thank you, Ed. I tried to do right by the book and the movie, and it was a challenge that I am afraid I didn't meet very well. I just learned something from the 90-minute[!] "about the movie" feature, which I hadn't watched prior to writing my review. The children's friend Dill was based on Truman Capote (1924-1984), who was a friend of Harper Lee (born 1926). Like Dill, Capote had relatives in Harper Lee's hometown [Monroeville, Alabama] and lived there for years after his parents divorced.
          In Jonathan Price's comment, you may have noticed the "...." before his paragraph about Harper Lee. In my email to you and Jon and the others, I had also asked:

      And did you see the two movies about Truman Capote, in which Harper Lee appears as a character? [Capote (in which Catherine Keener plays Harper Lee) and Infamous (in which she is played by Sandra Bullock)] I thought Lee was almost as quirky as Capote. Someone it would be fun to know.

      Not many commented on that, so I didn't include what Jon said:

      I did see both of the Capote films, which I enjoyed. Harper Lee, I think Capote’s cousin, played a major role in those films and in the making of In Cold Blood.

      Indeed, Harper Lee advised Horton Foote, the screenwriter, and was on the set during the filming (on a lot in Hollywood).
          The earth didn't move under your feet or mine when we watched the movie, but I was quite moved by the film about the making of To Kill a Mockingbird. As I indicated, it is 90 minutes long. And it has a title: Fearful Symmetry. The link is to its IDMb entry. It was written & directed by Charles Kiselyak, and it was released in 1998. I highly recommend it to anyone really interested in the book or the movie.
          The DVD I borrowed from our local library was actually a DVD set, with the second DVD devoted mainly to Gregory Peck. If you or others are lucky, they can simply borrow the set from their library. It's the Legacy Series To Kill a Mockingbird, and "Gregory Peck" appears above the title on the box. The link is to

  2. I can tell you as a Southerner there were very mixed reactions where I lived, Brevard County Florida. The space program was just "taking off" so to speak and the town I was in was more modern than most in Florida at the time as to attitudes, but just down the old two-lane roads you could find many a Southron redneck who thought Northerners were just meddling in our business as they put it, who just did not understand that we apparently had good reasons for being a bunch of racists. My grandfather was one of them. As a boy (I was 5 in 1960 when Mockingbird came out) I was fascinated by the idea of separate bathrooms. Did black people go to the potty different, so they needed their own bathrooms? Around that time the exact scene of the shooting of the dog happened in my neighborhood. A boxer came stumbling down the street with spittle literally hanging from its jaws nearly to the ground. When she saw it my mom dragged me in the house and called the neighbors next door, where the husband was home sick. He came out with his WW II rifle and shot the dog, then a county truck came and took it away. That man was named George Morford, and he was head of security for Kennedy Space Center at the time. This is Roger Owens I have not figured out how to comment under my name.

  3. As a college student in an American Lit course in the 70's I read the professor's book about a small southern town where a white cheerleader riding in a truck with a black football player caused an uproar. It was a survey couirse and there were easily 300 students in an auditorium/classroom. When he asked the class what was the real point of the story I was the only one who raised a hand. The point, I said, was that "nothing really happened". The prof was beside himself that someone had gotten it. Seems I was the only one who grew up in a small southern town who understood that nothing EVER really happens in such towns, which is why the slightest variation in the norm causes such a furor. I think this is partly what informs "Mockingbird". A murder, a rape, a racial divide, what entertainment! The most exciting thing that ever happened in most of those peoples' colorless lives.

    1. Ha, insightful observation, with accompanying validation from an American Lit instructor! Thanks for sharing.
          And congratulations on conquering the ins & outs of commenting on a Google blog!